The PM’s speech encapsulated her failed tactics throughout this sorry Brexit sagaby Jonathan Lis / May 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
On Tuesday Theresa May gave a masterclass in being Theresa May. She delivered one of her set-piece Brexit speeches, and like all the others, it was by turns evasive, dishonest, absurd and lacking all shame. This one will be her last.
May began with the self-effacing disclaimer that “the challenge of taking Brexit from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27… neighbours was always going to be huge.” She added for good measure that it had “proved even harder than I anticipated.” This sounded like a rare moment of candour, but in fact represented a more characteristic self-justification. Obviously Brexit is complicated. Of course it was over-simplified before the referendum, to disastrous effect. But it was the prime minister who continued over-simplifying it for three years afterwards. Colleagues and experts lined up each week to tell her how difficult it would be and she neither listened nor cared.
Then she outlined the various sweeteners in the Withdrawal Bill. To a casual listener they sounded eminently reasonable: the government would find alternative arrangements to the backstop, Northern Ireland would always be harmonised with the rest of the UK in regulations, and workers’ rights and environmental standards would be permanently guaranteed. But as so often with May, she had sabotaged herself before she even started. Most of the plans had already been promised. They went too far for Leavers and not far enough for Remainers. And at their core was a flagrant disregard for objective political fact.
At the most basic level, May knew that she was making guarantees that she would never be allowed to implement. She has acknowledged that she will soon be ousted, and none of her likely successors would feel bound to honour a single thing. But in fact the problem was far more fundamental. She was pledging things that no government could ever deliver, for the simple reason that they are impossible.
What did May mean when she announced “a legal obligation to seek to conclude alternative arrangements [to the backstop] by December 2020”? It was unadulterated fantasy. The words deceive listeners into believing the PM has power when May was literally formalising hope. The EU has shunned every “alternative arrangement” the UK has proposed because none of them guarantees an open Irish border or the…