A landslide won’t strengthen May’s hand
Published by The Guardian (2nd May, 2017)
Shortly after Theresa May set out her timetable for Brexit she went for talks with some European counterparts. First stop was Copenhagen, where both sides were all smiles as they spoke about shared determination to achieve a ‘friendly divorce’. But behind the scenes the Danes were left stunned by the prime minister’s stance, for she refused to give any clues to where there might be ground for compromise between Britain and the European Union.
Perhaps it is to May’s credit that, unlike many politicians, she says similar things in private as in public. But divorce after more than four decades will be difficult and messy, demanding flexibility alongside clarity to secure compromise from all 28 partners. Much will depend on personal chemistry and trust. After a disastrous dinner in London last week between the EU and British teams, however, the biggest news from the prime minister’s tour of television studios on Sunday was that she is from the same galaxy as those on other side of the Brexit negotiation table.
This is a relief. Yet there are alternative interpretations over that London dinner. Downing Street called it ‘constructive’. But a well-sourced account in a German newspaper was damning. At one point, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, reportedly boiled over in frustration, saying ‘the more I hear, the more sceptical I become’ over Britain’s approach. It’s claimed that he then hauled the recent 2,255-page EU agreement with Canada from a bag to highlight the difficulties ahead – a deal that took seven years to conclude and was disrupted at the last minute by a regional Belgian parliament fearing competition for its farmers.
Politicians play games to achieve their aims, of course. And our prime minister has shown she is not averse to duplicity and tactical feints. She wrong-footed everyone with repeated denials that she would call an election. Then she claimed one overwhelming reason for changing her mind: to provide more firepower in her Brexit discussions. ‘Every vote for me and my team on 8 June will strengthen my hand in those negotiations,’ she said again at the weekend. The same message gets rammed home in robotic manner by her disciplined army of ministers and MPs.
Yet this isn’t quite correct. Those who have endured long hours and dark nights of similar discussions say the opposite is true: that, counter-intuitively, a fragile government can be a help. ‘We often used to say we could not do something because we could not get it through parliament,’ says one senior Tory from the last government. ‘Everyone does that in Brussels.’ Two others said the same: a small majority at home makes it easier to win concessions in Europe.
The general election has been called with one clear aim: to crush a weak and divided Labour party. This is raw and brutal politics. Hopefully it will force a return to serious opposition on the left, or cathartic rupture. A hefty triumph would also give May more time to clear the hurdles of Brexit before facing voters again – especially with signs emerging of a weakening economy – plus extra leeway to ignore the ultra-Eurosceptics in her ranks if minded to do so.
Her enemies might howl in anger at such perfidy. Yet the doublespeak is entirely in keeping with this depressing Brexit debate. The campaign was fought and won on falsehoods – and not just that infamous £350m a week promised for the NHS. Leavers sneered when President Obama said we would end up at back of the queue for a United States trade deal. Now Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s commerce secretary, who has called Brexit a ‘God-given opportunity’ to steal trade from Britain, admits our discussions are a low priority.
Ross also told the Wall Street Journal that there were ‘bandwidth issues’, since Britain had not negotiated a trade deal ‘in a long, long time’. This has become alarmingly clear. Meanwhile, those facing our hastily created team have spent 10 months since our referendum honing their position. They know the EU’s survival is at stake, so any country leaving their club must end up worse off. They are also aware the two-year timescale after triggering article 50 was imposed to ensure no nation was ever foolish enough to try extracting itself from the economic, political and social entanglement that follows decades of membership.
It is to May’s credit as a politician that Labour has ended up irrelevant to this critical debate for our country. Brexit drowns out other issues in a dreary campaign, the only question being the scale of Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat and any increase in Liberal Democrat seats. Yet ask a Tory about struggling health services, inadequate housing supplies or creaking social care, and back comes the same pathetic response: we need a strong leader to negotiate the best deal with Brussels and stabilise our economy.
This might be smart politics, straight from the Lynton Crosby textbook, and lead to a historic triumph. Yet it is hard not to wonder if this closing down of debate on important issues is really the best way to restore faith in Westminster – one of the underlying issues that led to the breach with Brussels? Perhaps the Tory manifesto will provide more definition to our enigmatic prime minister. Regardless, it looks likely she can crush her domestic foes. Yet it is also becoming clear she faces far smarter opposition abroad in this dual battle for Britain’s future.