The Trouble With Teresa
It is useful to bear in mind just how far Mrs May was shackled by the incompetence of David Cameron and by the way the Remain Campaign was conducted. The Financial Times has a good video on the campaign: “Inside Brexit: How Britain lost Europe“. When the result was announced, David Cameron had no real alternative but to fall on his sword and resign because he had not made any plan for the contingency of the Leave Campaign winning. So, the Conservatives had to find a new leader.
Many will remember the eavesdropped conversation in July 2016 between two Tory Grandees, Malcolm Rifkind and Kenneth Clarke, who were among the Conservative MPs choosing the candidates to replace David Cameron after he had resigned following the referendum. Clarke said to Rifkind: “Theresa is a bloody difficult woman but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher.” We are now beginning to find out just how “bloody difficult” Teresa May is.
On 13th July 2016 Teresa May returned from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street after the Queen had asked her to form a government. The full text of what she said is set out in the Spectator: “Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister: full text“. The speech introduced the new concept (for Conservatives) of making promises to the “just about managing” but it also contained this:
“As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold, new, positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
Teresa May had plainly decided that the UK was to leave the European Union. Cabinet Appointments were announced on 13th and 14th July 2016 including the following: Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox as Secretary of State for International Trade and President for the Board of Trade (“the Brexit Ministers”).
The Independent was getting worried -see this 15th July 2016 article: “Theresa May is a control freak who will have to let go if she wants to succeed as Prime Minister”. Tellingly, the expression “control freak” was part of a comment from Damian Green who had been Home Office Minister under Teresa May:-
“She will be a hard taskmaster. “She’s a Stakhanovite and works harder than anyone,” said Damian Green, a former Home Office minister under May and one of the allies she promoted to the Cabinet – as Work and Pensions Secretary. He told the Institute for Government that she was “a bit of a control freak”, but insisted that was not a criticism.”
On 19th July 2016 the Mirror had this report after the first meeting of the Teresa May cabinet: ”Control freak Theresa May uses first Cabinet meeting to launch power grab across government – The new PM told Tory colleagues she is taking personal control of key priority areas – the economy, Brexit and social mobility”.
In August/Sepetember 2016, Dr Robert Niblett CMG, the Director of Chatham House – The Royal Institute for International Affairs, wrote comprehensively about how to prepare for Brexit: “Preparing for the UK’s Brexit Negotiation“. It is well worth reading. Noteworthy was this:
“At some point, May will have to trigger Article 50, the process laid out in the EU treaties by which the UK will formally negotiate its withdrawal from the EU with the other 27 member governments. It is important that the prime minister delays this process for as long as is feasible.”
Dr Niblett explained why:-
“On the one hand, a clear majority of the British electorate voted in the 23 June referendum for Britain to leave the EU. She has no choice but to follow through on the result. On the other, Leave supporters did not vote for a specific version of Brexit. Alongside the many who were determined to free the country from the costs and constraints of EU membership, the majority included an anti-austerity and anti-globalization protest vote and those with a vision of a buccaneering ‘global Britain’ .Distilling these diverse and sometimes divergent views over the coming months into a model of Brexit that can be negotiated with the EU will be exceedingly difficult, especially when many prominent champions of Brexit in Parliament and the media are demanding a rapid end to the UK’s EU membership and watching for any signs of retreat.”
In October 2016, The Guardian published this: “Exclusive: what Theresa May really thinks about Brexit shown in leaked recording – Secret audio of Goldman Sachs talk in May shows she feared businesses would leave and wanted the UK to take a lead in Europe“.
“Speaking at the bank in London on 26 May, the then home secretary appeared to go further than her public remarks to explain more clearly the economic benefits of staying in the EU. She told staff it was time the UK took a lead in Europe, and that she hoped voters would look to the future rather than the past. In an hour-long session before the City bankers, she also worried about the effect of Brexit on the British economy. “I think the economic arguments are clear,” she said. “I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think, as I was saying to you a little earlier, that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe. If we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say, do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence rather than a UK presence? So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms“.
There is good no good reason to think that these were anything other than Teresa May’s honestly held views. Yet by October 2016 and the Conservative Party Conference Teresa May had opted for Brexit and set a timetable for triggering Article 50. See this in the Sunday Times: “May fires Brexit starting gun – ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to scrap EU membership – PM’s speech will declare UK independence – Article 50 to be triggered by end of March“. It is worth noting that this was wholly contrary to Dr Nisbett’s scenario.
Also on 2nd October 2016, Alex Massie writing in the Spectator wrote: “Why didn’t Theresa May campaign for Brexit?“. Massie described Mrs May’s Sunday Times assertion that Brexit would make Britain great again as “twaddle”:-
“…can we pause for a moment to note that this is twaddle. Because if it were true – and if it were true that Mrs May believes this – then we are asked to believe that Britain was not, before its blessed liberation in June, a sovereign or independent nation. And if she really believed that, we might pause to ask why she did not campaign for Brexit? Moreover, if this were actually the case we might also ask why 48 percent of the voting public willingly endorsed Britain’s Brussels captivity, accepting the price of bondage as being one well worth paying. Of course we understand, now that Brexit means Brexit, Mrs May must pander to what Ken Clarke aptly labels the headbanging wing of the Tory party but there’s no need, even while doing so, to insult everyone else’s intelligence. Rhetoric matters, too. Not least because, as increasingly seems evident, the Conservative party is leading us to the hardest of hard Brexits. A Kipperish Brexit, in fact, of the sort that, had it been presented to the British people as the plan back in June, would most probably have failed to win the day. I base that view on the very good fact that if this was the kind of Brexit people might have voted for it would have been the kind of Brexit promised by the Leave campaign. It wasn’t.
So be it. In the meantime, we must endure endless crowing from the Brexiteers who greet every piece of encouraging economic data as fresh evidence there’s no downside at all to leaving the EU. It may be that, in time, the worriers and carpers and sceptics are confounded by events (and it would be a good thing, for all of us, if that proves the case) but it’s evidently much too early to say so and no amount of asinine cheerleading can disguise the fact that the economic impact of leaving the EU will not be felt until such point as, you know, the United Kingdom has actually left the EU.
The complete article is well worth reading.
By 23rd October 2016, the Telegraph was reporting this: “Theresa May to decide over Brexit talks, No 10 says, after Boris Johnson began setting Brexit strategy“. The article contained an embedded video of an interview with Mrs May on Sky in which Teresa May asserted that she would not invoke Article 50 until she knew what trade deal the UK would be able to conclude with the EU. That assertion has been overtaken by events, because Teresa May and her Brexit Ministers and advisers did not understand how other EU Member States and the Commission would approach Brexit – no negotiations prior to Article 50 notification.
So we have had the rather sad spectacle of Teresa May traipsing around Europe being cold shouldered by European leaders. If Mrs May had followed Dr Nesbitt’s excellent advice, she would have taken a much longer approach. There would have been open discussions inside and outside Parliament on the way forward and eventually parliamentary debates on the nature of any future relationship with Europe.
It is worth noting that the EU institutions are well used to referendum votes which fail on the first attempt and which require the EU and the Member State in difficulty to co-operate on ways forward. But the fateful inanity of the May slogan “Brexit means Brexit” meant that she lost that opportunity.
Worse still has been Teresa May’s attempt to bypass not only public debate, but also Parliament. That led to the legal challenge about the use of prerogative powers to give effect to the Referendum vote. The May Government lost in the Divisional Court and appealed to the Supreme Court. The case has been heard by the Supreme Court and judgement is expected in January 2017. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will require Mrs May to proceed by way of an Act of Parliament.
On 14th December 2016, Sky News had this: “Secrecy is damaging PM Theresa May’s Brexit preparations, say Whitehall experts – Experts say the absence of a clear plan and the desire for secrecy are hitting preparations for Article 50 and later negotiations.” and Reuters had this: “British PM May’s Brexit plan: secret strategy or muddle?“. The source of this concerns may be this briefing paper from the Institute for Government: “Whitehall’s preparation for the UK’s exit from the EU” which is worth a read.
On 23rd December 2016 the Daily Mail reported: “Brexit means Brexit, Ma’am: Queen left ‘disappointed’ after Theresa May declined to share her plan on how the UK will leave the EU during two day stay at Balmoral“.
To end this sad year we had Teresa May’s “Christmas Message” reported in the Independent: “Theresa May uses Christmas message to urge Britain to be ‘bold’ post-Brexit – The Prime Minister asks the country to ‘come together’ in 2017“. It is worth reading the readers’ comments on the article including this:-
“Spin…soundbite…spin…soundbite…spin… What a disastrous woman, what a disastrous year, what a disastrous future lies before this divided, shambolic land.”