With lead EU negotiatior Michel Barnier promising to get to ‘the heart of the matter’ in overseeing the UK’s departure from the EU, there has rarely been so urgently a need for a national leader who has both a passionate rigour on the issue and broad support from the country. Only a few months ago we had a Prime Minister that had convincingly pivoted to or feigned the former and could make a decent claim on the latter. Yet Theresa May’s political integrity has now crumbled, diminishing the UK’s negotiating strength with it.
It was quite bad enough that she should lose her Parliamentary majority. This in itself dealt a dual blow to Mrs May and her negotiating position. She only has herself, and her advisors, to blame; plenty has rightly been said about the miserable Tory campaign. It displayed such contempt towards the electorate, deafening it with robotic overtures of ‘strong and stable leadership’, ‘coalition of chaos’, and whatnot as to make one pine for the days of a ‘long term economic plan’. Government is never as glamorous as opposition, just as reality is rarely as splendid as the land of make-believe, so this should be taken into account when judging the government in the face of the threat posed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
It is understandable that May lacks what George H.W. Bush called ‘the vision thing’. However, May has been remarkable in failing to sketch out any real ideology or mission to her government, in particular her agenda on Brexit. Now-famous stalls like ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘red, white, and blue Brexit’ do less to buy time than to invite confusion and mockery. Unsurprisingly for someone who never originally believed in leaving, she is struggling for a post-Brexit vision with any specificity, telling reporters in January ‘I don’t accept the terms hard or soft Brexit. What we are doing is going to get an ambitious, good, the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in terms of trading with, and operating within, the single European market’. Well, doesn’t everyone? Little wonder that Labour managed to shore up its own leave-voting electoral base so well.
Resultantly Tory backbenchers are doing what Tory backbenchers do best: sniping at the leader and causing havoc for the general party leadership. A Tory MP told last Sunday’s Sunday Telegraph that Brexit Secretary David Davis ‘has a lot of people saying, “You are the guy who can deliver on Brexit and deliver on Corbyn”‘. Ideally the decision on who can best deliver a successful departure from the EU with as little pain as possible would preferably not hinge on image-driven speculation about how well they would fare in relation to Mr Corbyn. So much for confidence in our strong and stable Prime Minister. The previous day the Daily Telegraph reported a senior Cabinet minister saying that the Chancellor, no less, was trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit. This kind of fracture in Downing Street is very worrying when a solid partnership between Numbers 10 and 11 is critical to the integrity of any government. People can be forgiven for worrying about the government’s ability to grind out successful negotiations over two years when it cannot go a day without tripping itself up. Internecine fighting over Europe has long been a bother for the Tory leadership. Indeed, it is a sort of tradition that Tory leaders are felled by this issue. For a long time, this did not matter too much outside of the party. However, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron, for example, were not in the midst of extracting their country from the European Union.
This stuff matters. It does not do to have a Prime Minister that cannot even guarantee her own presence in the foreseeable future handling negotiations of this magnitude. Whatever the nation thinks of her, she is charged with representing the national interest. Weakness on her part cannot help the strength of the country in negotiations. As much as partisan affairs should not interfere with her business in Brussels, it may be very difficult to disentangle them. Obviously the Prime Minister and her team should be answerable to Parliament and the public as negotiations proceed. However, it would be best not to have a Prime Minister weighed down by her own party’s squabbles while picking over such frivolities as residence rights and trade, upon which hundreds of thousands of jobs depend. Hence for Tory plotters who can see no further than the current polls or the next election to prolong this crisis of leadership would be an atrocious abdication of duty to their constituents and country.
Ever since the election potential replacements have been discussed. The bookies’ favourite to be the next Tory leader is Brexit Secretary David Davis, whom the Sunday Telegraph reported has potentially 30 MPs in support. He could actually be a commendable leader and Prime Minister. Talk of him as an icon of social mobility with a good dose of common sense rings true. He urged against George Osborne’s idiotic attempt to recklessly remove tax credits from low-income households in late 2015. Importantly, he is one of the all too few MPs on both sides to consistently vote against stupid foreign interventions that cost lives, money, and often much of the UK’s international credibility. He is a genuine old-fashioned Tory, so it is understandable that some backbenchers might want to install him in Number 10. However, the time must come for Tory backbenchers to put up or shut up, as to drag this murky leadership debate on while vital negotiations are being conducted would be to put party piffles before country. If Davis, or someone else, is to be shepherded into Number 10, it is best done while the UK is still paddling in the shallow waters of early negotiations rather than deep into 2018. If the Conservative party were to make a resultant hash of Brexit because it cannot order it own house, voters, whether for leave or remain, would rightly punish it severely. Labour already enjoy a modest but steady lead in the polls, and the image of the Tory party as the natural party of government is under serious question.
Yet that it is Corbyn who gains most profitably from the Tories’ scramble over Brexit is a sad sort of irony. Corbyn is one of the least capable figures in the Commons to effectively lead the country at present. He pledged in the manifesto to retain the benefits of the Single Market and weeks later sacked ministers who supported membership of it. If not entirely contradictory, this does not exactly make what he wants clear either. He is nowhere near leading his party behind a united position on the EU. Nonetheless, he has stressed the need for continued participation in Horizon2020, a vital scheme that enriches science and research across European universities and that appeared nowhere in the Conservative manifesto. On matters such as these and others, he is certainly using the greater freedom associated with the leader of the opposition and his lack of position on the negotiating table to useful political effect and the longer that Theresa May fails to capture a unifying post-Brexit image, the longer he will be able to play on her inadequacies and sap support from her party. Further, he must continue to achieve the right balance, as the Leader of the Opposition must do, between hoping for a successful government and criticising it where necessary.
It is certainly clear that the Liberal Democrats, who in the past have touted themselves as a truer opposition than Labour on Brexit, are incapable of this. In a recent interview with Andrew Marr, presumptive leader Vince Cable promoted his party’s ‘long-standing principled position that will become increasingly in line with the mood of the country and as the economy deteriorates, so I’m very optimistic about what we can do’. He is incidentally using similar tactics to those of UKIP’s short-lived disastrous leader Paul Nuttall and banking on a sloppy Brexit to affirm his own party’s position. While it would be cynical to accuse him of wanting the country to fail in partisan interests, it is certainly an unduly pessimistic outlook that installs no faith in the country’s potential and potentially weakens the country’s standing at this crucial moment in its history. Mindlessly droning on ‘holding the government’s feet to the fire on Brexit’ helped dissolve most of UKIP’s political relevance, something that it is currently struggling to claw back in a Hail Mary pass of a leadership election.
With no realistic leadership promised elsewhere, it is time for a great deal more confidence in Theresa May. That cannot, however, come from a vacuum. The Prime Minister must inspire it. It is understandable that she should not want to give too much away at this early stage in negotiations, so perhaps she can be pardoned her feeble words and assurances so far. It will soon be time for her actions to speak a great deal more loudly.