Theresa May haunted by all her yesterdays

I am sure that Mr Rees-Mogg’s expensive education has given him a mastery of Shakespeare. But just in case, he may want to re-read this passage:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We can all but hope for the day when the antics of the ERG are heard no more. But meantime their strutting and fretting, their sound and fury, have all come to nothing except increasing support for Theresa May – their intended sacrificial lamb.

A Times poll has shown that the antics around a possible leadership challenge have increased public support for the Prime Minister to remain in Downing Street from 33 to 46 per cent. Among Conservative and Lib Dem voters, support for her to remain at Number 10 is over 60 per cent compared to only 33 per cent of Conservative voters who wanted her to stay on a mere week before the poll and before the ERG’s coup fiasco.

Maybe Mrs May was right to string the Brexiteers along and only move to full blown confrontation this late in the process. Seeing as they have no coherent alternative exit plan other than a no deal train wreck, they have been exposed, Wizard of Oz-like, for an empty vessel.

So much for their bravado performance that they could easily command the support of 60-80 Conservative MPs. But, who knows, they may yet succeed in toppling her, tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow. Though the hope that they can orchestrate her replacement with one of their own now seems forlorn.

Mrs May has come back from Brussels with a proposed deal. One can make three statements that may all be true: (i) this is not a good deal for the UK which is potentially left as a rule-taker from the EU with no formal mechanism to influence and no unilateral mechanism of exiting the customs union; (ii) there is no better deal that can now be reached; (iii) given this deal, the UK would be better off in than out of the EU – as both brothers Johnson (and Mr Raab) have reminded us.

How this deal will fare through parliament first time, second time and maybe third time round; what route parliament and the country will take if the deal does not reach approval (no deal, a new referendum); whether Labour will follow the wishes of the majority of its membership and support a new referendum or remain in hock to its leader’s dislike of the EU – all these are utterly unpredictable.

While sympathy for Theresa May has increased as has admiration for her resilience in what must surely at the moment be one of the most unpleasant political jobs in the world, it is worth remembering that we are where we are because of a series of almighty blunders by the Prime Minister.

On accession to Number 10, she made no attempt to unite the country. Instead she portrayed herself as the hardest of hard Brexiteers ignoring the views of the over 16 million people who had voted Remain. She misjudged terribly when she called an election and she performed abysmally in the campaign. She lost her majority and chose to put herself at the mercy of the DUP.

She triggered Article 50 far too early without giving her government time to make adequate preparations for the negotiations. She rapidly acquiesced to the sequencing of the negotiations demanded by the EU which were cleverly designed to emasculate any negotiating leverage that the UK might have had.

In her Lancaster House speech, she set out a series of patently ridiculous red lines from which she was predictably forced to retreat in one humiliating climbdown after another.

In David Davis, she chose a Brexit secretary who clearly had no appetite for mastering the fiendishly complex detail that would be required to conduct negotiations. His main qualification for the job was that he was a devout Brexiteer. At a time when Britain should have been putting its best foot forward to build diplomatic capital across the world, she entrusted that job to a bumbling Boris Johnson.

Finally, in the mould of all managers who are unable to build and lead a well-functioning team, she took over all negotiations herself supported by doubtlessly able civil servants who were being asked to perform miracles. Anyone who pointed out the obvious hurdles, or that the ability to perform miracles was not in the gift of either civil servants or politicians, was summarily dismissed, marginalised or encouraged to resign.

Could there have been a better approach? No doubt.

First of all, the UK should have taken its time to trigger Article 50. Delay would have strengthened its hand particularly since, as a full member of the EU, the UK would have continued to participate in EU affairs and would have participated in the upcoming European elections and installed MEPs in Brussels. It would also have allowed time for the post-referendum polarisation of the UK population to be at least partially healed and for a better national conversation about the UK’s future to be had.

The government could also have taken its time to understand in full the implications of, and make as full preparations as possible for, a no deal exit BEFORE triggering Article 50. That would have put the UK ahead of the EU in no deal preparations and would have lent some minor modicum of credence to the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ soundbite – a statement that, given the lack of preparation, was laughable as soon as it came out of the PM’s mouth.

In all of this, she should have followed the example of Margaret Thatcher whose government spent at least a year in preparation and coal stockpiling before it took on the miners’ union. Instead we had Brexit Secretary Mk 2.0 spouting, a mere four months before exit date, that he had only just become aware that the Dover-Calais trade route was actually rather important.

That, not just his disagreement with the final deal, should have been enough cause for resignation.

All this to warn against accepting the deal that is on offer merely out of sympathy for an embattled, resilient Prime Minister. Or to pay any heed to the CBI’s endorsement of the deal as a reason for supporting it. The CBI was cowardly and silent during the referendum campaign and has no business expecting to be taken seriously now. As the Chairman of one of its member companies told me “Our concern is not the national interest. We will adapt and tell our shareholders how we will adapt.”

This is an abysmal deal. President Macron and Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez have already respectively declared that they will keep the UK in the customs union with the EU unless the UK delivers fishing rights in UK waters and enters discussions on shared sovereignty of Gibraltar. Who knows what dozens of other demands will emerge from all and sundry during the next negotiation phase when the UK will be faced either with accepting everything everyone demands or being indefinitely enslaved in a no-say customs union.

Talk about kicking the can down the road. With this deal Mrs May has created the conditions where her successors will have both hands tied behind their back, both feet chained together, their eyes blindfolded and a gun to their head when negotiating the post-exit arrangements. Whatever humiliations Mrs May has suffered will be as nothing compared to what is to come.

We are where we are. Mrs May and her government have messed up royally. Mrs May set a course driven by electoral timetables and Tory party divisions rather than one designed to promote the national interest.

There are now only two democratically legitimate next steps – calling a pause to the Article 50 process and calling either a general election or a new referendum. Let us hope that parliament may get us on one of those courses. The government clearly won’t.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. nigel hunter says

    The CBI are only interested in best deals for their shareholders They are not Nation supporters. They go where the money is. Likewise the Tories are no longer ‘one Nationer’s’ but money orientated capitalists. Running a country for all is now beyond them. They are stuck in the past ie following Trump with his fossil fuel worship (fracking etc). They will not serve the people well going into the future,. It is hard for them to admit they have made a monumental mistake wanting to belong to the past.

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