Technocrats, commentators and business people are excellent at laying out what is necessary; what ‘must be done’ in public policy to move forward.
Politicians, who live in the real world, are, on the other hand, necessarily focused on what is actually doable. And therein lies the Brexit peril we are now in.
First, let us be clear. If nothing is done, then the default option that we find ourselves in is that the UK will exit the EU on March 29 with no deal. As the chips currently lie, absolutely nothing has to be done in order for that to happen.
That is the position that the Prime Minister has put this country in. And let us be clear, it is her doing and only hers.
On the other hand, for any option other than a no deal to be pursued, something has to happen. In other words something active has to be done.
This state of affairs puts the ERG and their sympathizers (which may include the DUP) in an extremely strong position. All they have to do to get their wishes of a no deal exit is to obstruct. To make sure that nothing whatsoever can ever get done.
That, I would argue, is a much easier goal to achieve than actually to get something done – a goal that requires bringing on board around a single preferred way forward a large number of Tory MPs, opposition MPs from all parties, 27 EU member states, the European parliament and the European Commission.
And all to be done within a very few short weeks interrupted by the holiday season.
Putting the country in such a position is the measure of the failure of the current Prime Minister. She succumbed to two major failings. The first is politicians’ commonest and seemingly unavoidable sin: putting tactics ahead of a clear and sound overall strategy. The same sin that David Cameron committed when he promised a referendum in the 2015 election manifesto.
If there was an overall strategy, then it seems to have been to drag the whole thing out for so long that she could place parliament with its back against the wall and force it to back her deal for fear of a no deal exit. That strategy seems to be failing.
The second sin is what might have driven the failing strategy: a total lack of emotional intelligence. An underestimation or total dismissal of the visceral, deep-seated, uncompromising nature of the forces ranged against her. A belief that, in the face of looming catastrophe, everyone would fold and she would emerge triumphant – even though, through her Lancaster House speech and other repeated statements, she did nothing but encourage the hardening of uncompromising positions, possibly in the belief that she could string people along for long enough before the music eventually had to be faced.
Resilient and hard-headed as she is, it is possible that the PM may yet prevail. But the odds are shortening worryingly and dramatically.
And they will shorten even further if the PM’s stubbornness leads her to stick to her own preferred set of options rather than giving way to take in the preferences of others whom she previously saw as her enemies (Tory Remainers, the Labour Party, the SNP, etc) but who may now be her, and the country’s, only chance of salvation.
Nothing will work short of some radical and dramatic set of actions. Her EU colleagues have rightly advised her to stop throwing red meat at the ERG wolves, because she will only get eaten up.
In spite of the challenge to her leadership and the clear evidence that there is no room for compromise, there is still no sign that that advice will be heeded. Note the condemnation heaped upon the Chancellor when he dared to describe some of his Conservative colleagues (if one can call them that) as extremists.
It’s as though some are still living in the fantasy world where the ERG faction can be cajoled towards a compromise, so we mustn’t upset their sensitive souls too much.
Other suggestions are flying in thick and fast. From a government of national unity proposed by Nicky Morgan; to a pivot towards the Norway plus option; to a new referendum.
It does not seem to be in Mrs May’s nature to go for radical options or dramatic acts. Her technocratic instincts are strong, seemingly leading to a belief that further tinkering will get her over the line.
Far from being unhelpful, her EU colleagues have made clear to her that that approach will not work. They rightly refuse to be party to it, maybe hoping that, in doing so, they might encourage Mrs May to face the reality of her own parliamentary situation.
Yes, the ERG and their ideological kin have humiliatingly lost two very public battles. But, faced with a timid and stubborn Prime Minister, they may yet win the war.
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