One thing seems certain. However the Brexit negotiations evolve; whatever deal emerges at the end of it, everyone will be disappointed. Many will be angry. And the anger will inhabit both the Brexiteers and the Remainers.
Brexit has accentuated one over-riding feature of the British political system – its obsessively adversarial nature and its inability to compromise – at least in public. The nature of the campaigns during the referendum and the subsequent public discourse have turned the usual adversarial politics into a deep-seated, visceral antagonism between the two sides. Even the Commons committee on exiting the EU has failed to find a common position. Six Conservative members of the committee have refused to sign the final report.
And it is here that Theresa May has failed – and failed dramatically. Since she entered Downing Street, she has done nothing to try to bring the two sides closer together. She may have judged that such a thing was simply impossible. Yet she could have occupied the high ground herself, refused to get into the constant mud-slinging and instructed her ministers to do the same. She could have acknowledged that there were valid arguments on both sides that needed to be listened to and a compromise found that was in the best interests of the whole country. She did none of that. The country is more split than ever and Scotland may be lost.
It is not quite clear why Mrs May made these choices. Maybe she does really believe that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’ Or that adopting that stance was more likely to move the EU to give her a better deal. Or maybe she overestimated her own domestic power and her team’s ability to craft, in two years, a perfect deal in what is surely one of the most complex set of negotiations ever undertaken. Or maybe it was weakness. Like John Major before her, she may have felt hostage to the extreme Brexiteers within her own party and was too risk-averse to call an early election in the hope of increasing her majority and diminishing the power of the extremist fringe.
In attempting the unachievable personal control over compromise and consensus; in choosing technocracy over statesmanship, Mrs May has set herself up to fail. There is no way that she can please everyone – or even a significant majority. It is almost certain that she will leave everyone dissatisfied. The question is whether the damage will be limited to disappointment, dissatisfaction and anger, with inevitable personal political consequences, or whether she will end up taking the UK economy down with her.
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