Theresa May will never be remembered as a great prime minister because she is timid, calculating and lacks any positive vision for the country. But she can still redeem her failed premiership by sacrificing it in order to achieve a sane Brexit
The fate of Brexit hangs in the balance, primarily because two equal and opposing forces are selfishly attempting to hijack Britain’s negotiating stance for their own purposes.
One one hand there are the Brexit Ultras (or the Brexit Taliban, to use the less charitable but evocative phrase) who insist, like religious fundamentalists, that theirs is the One True Brexit, the only route to heaven, while all other interpretations are dangerous heresy. These people – your Steve Bakers, John Redwoods, Jacob Rees-Moggs and Suella Fernandeses – do not see Brexit as meaning departure from the political entity known as the European Union. To them, Brexit means severing virtually all ties and treaties with the EU while retaining nearly all of the current perks, while making up for any economic shortfall by effortlessly completing a series of swashbuckling free trade deals with countries often far less important to the UK economy than our nearest neighbours.
But on the other hand, there are forces who are arguing passionately for a “soft Brexit” with strong and enduring ties to the Single Market, not because they believe in Brexit or have accepted it, but because they see this as the first step to reversing the result of the EU referendum and keeping Britain in the European Union (generally by means of a second referendum, which they believe – erroneously, I think – that they could win). These people are not to be trusted. During the referendum campaign they could be found loudly insisting that any change in Britain’s relationship with the EU would result in political isolation and economic Armageddon, yet now they claim (somewhat more plausibly) that it is only separation from the Single Market which will cause harm. Their old argument was therefore a lie, a fig leaf to justify their determination for Britain to remain part of European political union at any cost.
And sandwiched between these two fanatical, opposing forces, are the saner Brexiteers – such as those connected to the Leave Alliance – who have been arguing all along that Brexit is not a sudden event but a process of unpicking 40 years of political and regulatory integration, and that the best way to achieve our political ends without causing undue economic damage is by means of a transition that involves rejoining EFTA and trading with EU member states on the terms of the EFTA-EEA agreement.
At the moment, however, Theresa May’s inability to exert control over her own party means that the government’s negotiating stance is effectively held hostage by the Brexit Ultras, who see the slightest moderation on trade as a “betrayal” of Brexit, despite laws relating to the EEA accounting for just 20 percent of the total EU acquis. Despite having languished in the political wilderness for decades, getting 80 percent of what they want on the back of a tight referendum result is somehow not good enough for the Brexit Taliban – and their selfish greed for the full 100 percent needlessly imperils the whole endeavour, and our economy with it.
But it need not be like this. As Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman, there is no shortage of MPs willing to work with Theresa May to achieve a softer, saner Brexit (at least for a transitional period) if only she was willing to work in a bipartisan way rather than remaining a hostage to her own backbenchers.
As Parliament has ratified Article 50, passed May’s Queen Speech and thus lost control of its ability to directly influence the government’s negotiations, when the final Brexit deal comes before the House of Commons, the option they will be voting on will be “Theresa May’s Brexit deal or no deal”. As I’ve written on several occasions, no deal is a great deal worse than a bad deal. No deal means, at best, exit on World Trade Organisation terms, no deal to allow British airplanes to fly to the European Union or the United States, chaos at borders and an immediate and hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This all has one massive upside for May: while there are many Conservative MPs who don’t accept this to be true, the opposition parties all know it to be the case. May will always be able to count on enough MPs from the parties of the centre and left being unwilling to make their own constituents’ lives drastically worse.
But the snag remains:
But that would require her to pursue a Brexit deal that wasn’t focused on keeping her government on the road – one that saw getting the best deal as more important than preventing May being removed by her own backbenchers. The difficulty is that Theresa May displayed precious little desire to pick a fight with her own party before she threw away their first parliamentary majority in 23 years and she has even less of one now.
This is one of those times when a presidential-style system of government would actually aid Britain enormously. With a separately-elected head of government, more autonomous and less beholden to the rank and file of their political party, it would be easier to forge a winning coalition in Parliament to pass a more sensible, measured Brexit bill. Unfortunately, with the British parliamentary system, any attempt by Theresa May to make overtures to pragmatists across the political aisle would immediately put her premiership in grave peril. A leadership challenge would all but certainly be triggered immediately, and it would then be a race against time to pass the bill before the self-destructive forces at work within the Tory Party concluded their ghastly business and replaced May with a One True Brexit fanatic.
But at this point, there is precious little to lose – not for the country, anyway (though Tories with medium-term hopes for future political careers may feel somewhat differently). And there is precious little for principled conservatives to lose either, given that Theresa May’s government has given every indication from Day 1 that it intends to fight a rearguard retreating battle against encroaching statism rather than take it on with a bold, alternative vision.
The prime minister and her Conservative Party have had all summer to dwell on the reasons for their disastrous election campaign and their their growing unpopularity among people with their original hair colour, and to come up with at least a sketched outline of a new approach. And what was the best scheme they managed to cook up between themselves in all that time? A puny, derisory pitch to reduce interest rates on student loan debt, in the risible hope that doing so might win the affections of young voters currently seduced by Jeremy Corbyn.
The ambition has gone from this Conservative government, together with any semblance of intellectual rigour in their policymaking. Rather five years of Jeremy Corbyn, constrained by his own centrist MPs and a Tory party in opposition, than any more of this decay and damage to our reputation. At least the government’s approach to Brexit might be somewhat more pragmatic if led by people who do not expect the European Union to freely offer all of the benefits of the Single Market for none of the costs or commitments. And then, when Corbyn’s Labour Party have proven themselves to be a shambles in every other respect, the Conservative Party might bounce back into government under the direction of a leader more worthy of respect.
What great development are Theresa May’s supporters hanging on for? What great new policies or achievements do they imagine her accomplishing with her puny non-majority in the time before she is inevitably toppled by one of her Cabinet members? There is nothing. So better to bring the suffering to a close and stop deferring the inevitable.
If the prime minister were better advised, she might also see the advantages of this option. Theresa May is a weakened leader, barely in control of her directionless party which itself is unpopular with voters after seven wasted years in government. At present, her premiership is set to come to an ignominious close with no significant accomplishments to her name. But this need not be so.
In a final act of defiance – and as an extravagant and substantial gesture to help bring the country together after the EU referendum and its fallout – Theresa May should stand up to her backbenchers and to the Brexit Taliban, and work with willing MPs from the opposite benches to ensure that a more considered Brexit Bill is passed by Parliament. This need not and should not be a formal arrangement with the Leader of the Opposition, who will have his own motives. Jeremy Corbyn’s support remains shallow within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and willing supporters could be found by going round the Labour whips.
At present, the very future of Brexit is being imperilled by zealots who foolishly insist that forty years of political and economic integration with the EU be unpicked in the space of just two years. These people need to be sidelined, and if the price of doing so is the end of an otherwise hopeless premiership and the provoking of a long-overdue existential crisis within the Tory party then it is a price very much worth paying.
There is nothing else that Theresa May can do which would impact so positively on her legacy at this point. The prime minister should consider her options.
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