A number of delayed inevitables finally happened this week. With Theresa May at last forced to declare publicly which policy to pursue over ‘Brexit‘, her house-of-cards is teetering.
The Democratic Unionist Party, predictably furious to learn that the Prime Minister’s ‘backstop’ plan involved treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, effectively establishing a kind of border in the Irish Sea, have in all-but-words dissolved the alliance agreed after the General Election.
A number of May’s own MPs are now in open revolt over Britain not having independent power to end the backstop summarily, with the rumour circulating – perhaps wrongly – that the magic forty-eight letters of no-confidence have already been received by the 1922 Committee, automatically triggering a leadership ballot.
Business leaders have expressed unhappiness with the Brexit plan. Opinion polls suggest the Tories have haemorrhaged between 3 and 6 points in around a week due to hardline Brexiteers across the country feeling betrayed by the suggestion that Britain may stay in a Customs Union with the European Union; they appear to be flocking back to UKIP. A ‘coalition of chaos’? In short, the Government has hit the buffers this week. It had to sometime. This is not altogether Theresa May’s fault. It was a course she was unavoidably set on by her predecessor, the abysmal David Cameron, when he let the nationalist genie out of its bottle by calling the Brexit referendum to being with. May is undoubtedly in a fairly hopeless situation, trying to implement a gigantic policy she never really wanted, and one that can only lead to more trouble when it matures.
It is therefore entirely possible to feel sorry for May. However, I do not.
May made too many needless mistakes
For one thing, she knew all this would be heading her way eventually when she stood for the top office. For another, her handling of the process has been generally awful.
Her first, biggest blunder was activating Article-50 as early as March last year. For all the belly-aching across the country from ignorant Brexiteer foam-at-the-mouths about how long it was all taking, there really was no need to start anything like so soon. She was over-sensitive to the slightest hint of Brexiteer criticism and so she committed to the two-year countdown early just to placate them.
This surrendered two critical resources straight away, both of them time. First of them was that May immediately put clock-pressure on herself, handing the EU the trump card at negotiations. For whatever Brexiteers like to keep sloganising, in truth Brexit will hurt us more than it will hurt Brussels, and so the pressure to secure a severance deal within the two years was always greater on the UK than it was on the rest of the EU.
The second surrendered resource was the very substantial time needed to put together a coherent framework for withdrawal. No one, as I have stated repeatedly, had a plan at the time of the referendum for how to go about the highly complex task of leaving the EU – which is why I voted Remain – and there was still no clear strategy put together by the activation of Article-50.
Most specifically, there was still no comprehensive idea how to settle the Irish or Gibraltar borders in a way that could allow complete severance from the EU, as hardliners demanded, while not undermining relations with the two territories’ immediate neighbours. By activating Article-50 when she did, May was committing to looking for solutions to these issues actually while the clock was already counting down, instead of beforehand.
May then compounded this by calling a General Election to take place just eleven days before negotiations were due to begin. This was an amazing act of arrogant stupidity. If she had done it before activating Article-50, that would have been less harmful, regardless of the outcome. But doing so afterwards meant that seven weeks of precious preparation time for Brexit were absorbed on the campaign-trail instead. Worse, her performance on the campaign-trail was appalling, the most dreary, negative, dishonest, robotic, cowardly and colourless Election campaign in living memory, and she ended up squandering a starting polling-lead possibly as high as 24 points – narrowed down to just 2.5 points on Election day.
May’s conceit and deceit
Worse, throughout the course of negotiations, May has been intensely deceitful and evasive. Now, I actually agree with her when she says her plan is probably about the best hardliners can hope for from Brexit. The complications created by Ireland and Gibraltar mean their desired total severance was never a realistic possibility.
But what May finally admitted this week is precisely what people like me have been saying for months on end, and she kept avoiding discussion of it – we have to retain some kind of Customs Union with the EU as an absolute bare minimum. By claiming we could have a soft border in Ireland while not being in any Customs Union with the EU (of which the Republic of course remains a part), she was talking complete Orwellian blackwhite. She was trying to please both wings of the Brexit debate in her party and the DUP for as long as possible, and was prepared to lie to them non-stop in order to do so.
The resentment created on both sides after such prolonged deceit has been probably been far greater than if she had just come clean at the outset that what hardliners wanted was simply impossible. Short-termist deceit can be understood, but it should not receive sympathy.
No, Brexit as a whole was not May’s creation. But a lot of the mess she is in was her own doing – a mix of arrogance and cowardice causing her to ignore many-a-warning that she should have handled every stage of this differently..