Fearful UK needs to shake this bad case of Theresa May
She loses support by the day, yet she clings on. This political impasse can't hold for much longer
As a vicar’s daughter, UK Prime MinisterTheresa May seems to like St Paul’s words: “When I am weak, then am I strong.” She acts as if they apply to her premiership.
Ever since she disastrously mishandled last year’s British general election campaign, her position has been weak and grown weaker, yet she remains in office. Almost every Tory politician I meet tells me she is no good and that she really must go, but then – out of fear of the disruption caused by trying to find a replacement – ends up saying that she should stay.
After announcing her Chequers proposals to her cabinet in July, May lost two of its most senior members, Boris Johnson and David Davis. As a result, she lost the support of most of her party on her Brexit stance.
Last month, she went to Salzburg backed by a briefing that the member states were now trying to help Britain. The Economist, ever jaunty in its erroneous insider confidence, declared that “the EU is sounding friendlier as the Brexit negotiations near their conclusion”. In fact, she was insulted and her Chequers plan was rejected.
This week, she faces her party’s annual conference in Birmingham. Almost no one in her government now supports the Chequers plan or believes it can fly, yet still she incites it to soar. A group of cabinet ministers has privately formed to tell her that she must have a plan B, since Chequers is failing. Yet she just repeats, without evidence, that it is the way forward.
It seems – so far, at least – that she proposes to maintain this position when she addresses party members in the hall. It is admirable to stick to your principles in adversity, but one of the odd things about May’s stands is that they are not based on principle. She is not unprincipled, but she does not have ideas of her own. After all this time she has still not set out a coherent set of beliefs about what Britain, post-Brexit, should be. Instead, having slowly, cautiously arrived at a negotiating position, she adheres to it with a literal-minded sense of righteousness.
This does not make for good government. St Paul’s language was appropriate for talking about a Christian’s relationship with his creator. It doesn’t work so well when dealing with the Conservative Party, the House of Commons or the British electorate.
May’s weakness makes her rigid, not strong. She combines a readiness to accept the conventional views of our ancien régime with a stiffness in negotiation and a basilisk stare of disapproval at any colleague who shows signs of originality. Under a more independent-minded prime minister, we could have cut short the long agony in which the British establishment fails to come to terms with the fact that, in 2016, the people voted and the “wrong” side won.
The officials who felt so confident before Salzburg were the same type of people who told David Cameron that he could win enough concessions on immigration from Angela Merkel to carry the Remain cause over the line in the 2016 referendum. They have the greatest difficulty understanding that Brexit is ultimately a question of democracy, not of diplomacy, and so there is no clever fix to be found.
May boxes herself in to the official mindset, instead of leading government out of it. As Boris Johnson pointed out last week, the past two years have been wasted testing to destruction the bureaucracy’s belief that Britain must cling to a customs union rather than make its own way in the world.
So the situation is very bad. Until now, the unspoken calculation of the government has been that it could produce a fudged Withdrawal Agreement before Brexit day and that parliament would end up voting for it. But the effect of Chequers and its aftermath was to expose just how shockingly feeble it would be. Britain would become a “rule-taker” from Brussels, sacrifice the unity of the United Kingdom on the legally enforceable basis of a bogus interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement, forego its expected post-Brexit freedom to make its own trade deals and pay £39bn for these privileges.
That would be penal. Although the UK applied to leave under Article 50, the EU’s attitude to it is more like that prescribed under Article 7 (currently being deployed to threaten Hungary). Article 7 is the treaty clause that punishes naughty states by suspending their membership while maintaining their obligations. The cardinal sin is failing to live up to “European values”. The degree of humiliation involved in such a Withdrawal Agreement is so great that it is becoming hard to see parliament voting for it.
Why would the Labour Party opposition want to be associated with it? Why would the Johnson/Rees-Mogg Brexiteers, after fighting so long and hard, want to give up now?
Britons keep being warned about “crashing out”, but crashing on the fence, half-in, half-out, looks much more painful. Hence the idea of Super Canada, advocated by the Johnsonians and taken up by a good many in the cabinet as well. The arch-Remainer Dominic Grieve, however, claims that he has 40 Tories who won’t stand for it. If true, it falls too.
The chances of departure on WTO terms (which people misleadingly call “no deal”) rise. I won’t try to do the detailed parliamentary arithmetic (though I do point out in passing that the DUP could bring down the government over the Irish backstop even without Tory rebels).
Instead, I raise, rather tentatively, a different question.
One reason that May stays on top – adamant, in Churchill’s famous phrase, for drift – is that the Conservatives assume there must, on no account, be a general election soon. Are they right? Given the disaster of the last one, they may well be.
The electorate might punish them doubly for doing again what they did last year. Labour might sweep to power on a wave of revulsion with the Tories and their quarrels. These are huge objections. But there is no doubt that the ghastly paralysis from which the UK suffers, and which permits May’s negative approach to government, comes from fear. Fear of Brexit, fear of losing, fear of Corbyn exclude all other thoughts, so the government has almost nothing to offer.
The reason Corbyn and John McDonnell last week in Liverpool promised expropriation of property, new nationalisation, renationalisation, government control of the press and all the rest is because they expect there will not be an election now and the Tories are having such a nervous breakdown that they do not know how to answer them.
Despite this political vacuum, opinion polls are poor for Labour, given that this is a time when the opposition ought be 15 percentage points ahead (in a YouGov poll last week, they were six points behind). Corbyn is the most extreme, narrow, out-of-date and unqualified person ever to lead one of the two main UK parties, and heads a party just as, if more covertly, split over Brexit. Yet he passes virtually unchallenged. That is because May is leader of the Conservative Party.
Sooner or later, he can be beaten by a Tory leader who is prepared to take him on. My only points are that it might be sooner rather than later, and that it won't be May.
– © The Daily Telegraph