For years we mocked our neighbours’ ‘unstable’ governments. Now, with Brexit upon us, the joke is on this country
A cartoon in a Dutch newspaper depicts Mrs May whacking herself over the head with a mallet. Another Dutch publication has the prime minister entering the Brexit negotiations with her severed head cradled under her arm. It is not just the Netherlands that is having a good giggle. Britain’s prime minister – and, by extension, Britain itself – is an object of torrential mockery across Europe. Here is payback for all those years when snooty Albion turned up a haughty nose at the continentals with their “funny” proportional electoral systems that produced “unstable” governments. Though European leaders are too polite to put it so bluntly, they think that this country, once thought to be a nation of level-headed pragmatists, has taken leave of its senses. First, Britons narrowly vote to quit the world’s largest and richest free trade area. Then, at an election less than 12 months later, Britons split their support between the parties in such a way that there is no consensus in parliament about the terms on which Britain should leave. There is not even agreement about how to proceed on Brexit within the riven ruling party. Ridicule abroad is matched by ridicule at home. This side of the channel, Mrs May is now routinely referred to and depicted as the “zombie prime minister”, a phrase I used to describe her immediately after the election.
There is an irony about this – the most bitter of ironies for Mrs May. In other European countries, the result she achieved on 8 June would be considered not an abject humiliation but an extraordinary triumph. She won 13,669,883 crosses in boxes and a share of 42.4%. In terms of votes, that was the best result for any party leader in Britain since John Major’s victory in 1992. In terms of share, that was the most impressive performance since Margaret Thatcher secured a parliamentary landslide in 1983.