(Title Image: huffingtonpost.co.uk)
With the UK heading towards a “No Deal” Brexit by default on March 29th – the parliamentary votes on extending Article 50 mean nothing if the EU doesn’t agree – it’s worth reflecting on precisely how we got into this situation and the person front and centre of it all.
I’m loath to admit that I can’t bring myself to place all of the blame for this on Theresa May or even dislike her. You can pick out things to dislike about some of her predecessors – Tony Blair’s self-righteousness, Margaret Thatcher’s lack of compassion, David Cameron’s arrogance – but for Theresa May everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.
The Prime Minister, therefore, cuts a tragic figure and, on a human level at least, I do feel sorry for her. What better example than at one of the last Brexit debates in London where a sore throat reduced her to growling through her speech like she was in Darkthrone.
Saying that, she hasn’t helped herself and when it comes down to it you have to be objective and assess the mistakes so they’re properly recorded and never repeated.
1. Not seeking “Losers’ Consent”
“Losers’ consent” is a principle recently raised by Prof. Richard Wyn Jones. In short, when there’s a close or indecisive result in an election or referendum the winning side reaches out to the opposition to agree on a way forward, compromising where necessary though not changing the result itself.
He pointed out that following the close 1997 referendum to establish the Senedd (50.3%-49.7%), the winning side involved the No campaign in helping to shape the first Government of Wales Act in 1998.
This hasn’t happened at all with Brexit, perhaps because of the confrontational winner-takes-all politics in Westminster. The 52-48 margin across the UK as a whole is hardly an emphatic endorsement, even if it means leaving the EU has to be delivered.
There hasn’t even been any consensus on what “leaving the EU” means; “Brexit means Brexit” is a slogan, not a policy. There’s a whole spectrum of outcomes which would all equally honour the referendum result, from EEA/single market membership, through to a Swiss-style arrangement, a customs union and the “No Deal” WTO rules.
In the intervening period since Theresa May took office, a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s departure could’ve been held. Other options include some sort of royal commission to get an impartial analysis of the best way forward, or even the establishment of a temporary National Government focused solely on EU withdrawal. Instead, this happened….
2. Letting Hard Brexiteers handle the negotiations
David Davis, Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox have all proven themselves to be completely out of their depth, but one of those clowns stands a good chance of being our next Prime Minister. That’s before you include chucklef**ks like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and the rest. Involving the opportunists from the DUP – who would give their best drumming arm and orange sash for a sniff of relevance on “the mainland” – has also been a political disaster.
In the Prime Minister’s defence, if she didn’t appoint leading Brexiteers into key roles she could well have been accused of a stitch-up by the right-wing press. So what? Any leader worth their salt picks roles based on what individuals bring to the table, not convenience.
Theresa May’s proven herself willing to press ahead contrary to popular opinion since she took over as Prime Minister. It’s unclear why she decided not to continue in that spirit when it came to delegating the task of getting a deal done.
Instead, she left the important parts of Brexit in the hands of men of such high calibre they went to meetings completely unprepared, didn’t realise the logistical significance of Dover, have completely failed to agree “the easiest free trade deal in history” or walked away in protest at the very deal they negotiated….because they were never serious about reaching a deal in the first place. Northern Ireland has also received a £1billion bung (and is likely to receive more) when there’s no Northern Irish administration to spend it.
A “Reluctant Leaver” who wasn’t a chinless wonder, has a keen eye for detail and a firm grasp of the issues at stake would’ve been a better pick, but that very person (Philip Hammond) was left marginalised purely because of how it would’ve gone down at the Daily Mail.
3. The Red Lines
The Prime Minister laid down several red lines: leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, ending free movement, cutting back on payments to fund EU programmes. On paper, this put the UK on course for a “Hard Brexit” and a hard border in Northern Ireland. Fair enough.
The moment the UK Government had to compromise on these red lines – which eventually became the Chequers Agreement – the whole thing started to fall apart. These weren’t red lines, more a wish list to keep her own hardline eurosceptic backbenchers on board, perhaps in the hope that an agreement would come late enough in the day for them to turn around and back it anyway.
The Prime Minister made promises she couldn’t keep and the deal has now been voted down several times in London and the devolved parliaments, when – returning to point 1 – a more consensual approach with buy-in from the opposition may have resulted in a deal by now. That won’t have satisfied the hardliners on either side, but they’re not satisfied with anything.
If the UK really wanted a bespoke arrangement – such as the creation of a brand new UK-EU free trade area – then Article 50 should’ve been delayed until there was at least an informal agreement in principle with the EU on such a deal.
It’s worth pointing out too that ( while they might not have actually had to deliver on anything) the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru managed to come up with a fairly comprehensive vision for Brexit within about 6 months of the referendum result. Wales and Scotland have expertise in dealing with the grey Brussels bureaucracy which the UK Government don’t and that expertise was never called upon.
Now, a few days away from Brexit, we still don’t entirely know what the UK Government’s plans are.
4. The 2017 UK General Election
The Prime Minister can be forgiven for making a bad call here because you can understand why it was tempting to call the election. Jeremy Corbyn was polling poorly, the Tories had done reasonably well in that year’s local elections and she saw an opportunity to get the kind of “strong and stable” majority needed to push her agenda through unopposed.
It didn’t go according to plan, obviously, with a Conservative working majority swinging to a hung parliament.
Brexit and Theresa May’s leadership credentials – supposed to be front and centre of the campaign – were overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London (which focused attention on Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary and cuts to policing). Theresa May herself came across as cold and robotic, while Jeremy Corbyn defied expectations from even within his own party, coming across as a personable and committed social justice champion….though that doesn’t seem to have lasted.
5. Ignoring the domestic agenda
I’ve struggled to come up with a single significant (non-devolved) domestic policy put forward by the UK Government over the last two years that wasn’t related to Brexit in some way. Can you?
City deals and scrapping the Severn crossing tolls pre-date the referendum and by themselves are fairly minor. Public spending hasn’t really changed; austerity is still with us. There’ve been no major tax initiatives (the sugar levy pre-dates the referendum too). No movement on the cost of living. No movement on welfare reform or universal credit. Very little appears to have been done on “county lines” and knife crime. Grenfell Tower and Windrush are scandals, not policies. Chris Grayling is a human wrecking ball.
Far from “business as usual”, it’s been about what the Conservatives haven’t done, especially in Wales – Swansea tidal lagoon, rail electrification, Wylfa B.
The question of “opportunity cost” was raised in the Senedd recently and far from “getting on with the job of government”, the lack of a significant domestic agenda suggests that behind the scenes Brexit has dominated everything. The fact that it will have done so, yet we’re still this close to leaving without an agreement, points to nothing other than near-criminal levels of incompetence on the part of the British Government.