The Prime Minister's latest move on Brexit goes beyond awkward fumbling—refusing to ask for a longer extension is downright reckless, and puts the whole country at riskby Tom Clark / March 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
I’ve never loathed Theresa May. She doesn’t exude the callousness towards the weak of say, Margaret Thatcher, or ooze the sort of smarmy charm that made Clinton, Blair and Cameron grate so badly after a while. The one time I’ve met her one-to-one at a small drinks reception, what struck me was both how terrible she was at making small-talk, and how indifferent she was to this failing. That combination struck me as almost impressive. Her politics aren’t mine, but Clem Attlee would have been the same. It is the sort of failing you’d expect in someone who is focused on what is important, and doing what she thinks of as the right thing.
Over the years, I’ve avoided rushing to make personal judgments about her. Windrush? It was appalling, but the racist practices she presided over at the home office seemed to me to be bureaucratic and institutional, not personal. Calling an election after solemnly swearing not to? It was no more than an ordinary political porkie; any recent prime minister would have been capable of doing the same. Running away from Grenfell? I genuinely felt sorry for her as the world decided she had a heart of stone. I saw the no-show as a very characteristic case of political maladroitness and personal awkwardness, and even remember arguing to friends that I’d rather have a PM who was interested in working behind the scenes on getting the right relief in place, than making a show of wallowing in the grief.
What about the shambling Brexit process of these last three years? Like everyone I’ve looked on in despair, but have not rushed to point the finger of blame her way. In summer 2016 any prime minister, and especially any Remain-voting prime minister, would have inherited an almighty political mess. Her time in office was bound to be scrappy, because it was fated to be consumed by a project she had judged a mistake.
Whatever the most zealous Remainers might say, it was absurd to imagine that any PM could have turned round to the country and said that that the referendum was merely “advisory,” and that the advice was rejected. And if we were destined to push ahead, then I could see the logic of her Lancaster House speech. When the Chequers plan and the first Meaningful Vote arrived and went up in smoke, I was still inclined—like Daniel Finkelstein in this week’s Times—to see all the chaos as emanating from the underlying political situation, not the specific woman in No 10.
Whichever leader the Conservatives happened to have would, surely, have been having a miserable time in trying to navigate the magical thinking of the ERG, the brinkmanship and bigotry of the DUP, and the cold reality that it was the European giant—and not plucky little Britain—that called the shots in the negotiations. It is all very well to argue she should put “country before party,” but no politician who believes in their own party will ever see the contrast as starkly as that, and no politician who wants to survive can afford to do so. All of her manoeuvres would have been forgivable if, in the end, she was resolved to do the right thing.
Only in the last few weeks has it become plain May’s famous steadfastness is, in fact, nothing more than bloody-minded obstinacy. Faced with the crashing defeat of a deal which everyone hates, she could and should have worked with Europe to arrange an orderly pause, and reached out across the Commons to at least explore whether a consensus existed for anything else. She didn’t do so. Instead, she went to ground, delayed and assumed she could keep control of the clock to grind everyone into submission. It has been an ugly display of arrogance which the Speaker was quite right to check.
Now she has responded in turn with a truly dangerous swerve, to try and grab back control of the clock. Openly disdaining the thrice-expressed will of the Commons that Britain should not countenance leaving Europe without No Deal, she is heading to Brussels where she will use what could be the UK’s only chance to ask for more time to ask for an extension so short that it really does reduce the choices to two: my way or the highway.
As her effective deputy, David Liddington, expressed it in Parliament only last week: “seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless.”
Unless provision is made—right now—for at least the possibility of a longer extension, then a truly hard deadline will very soon be upon us. Her short extension is designed to make sure that insofar as Europe is concerned we simply have to be out, with her deal or no deal, by the time the new European Parliament meets on July 1.
And things will become irreversible sooner than that: if we have not, by April 12, arranged for the UK to take place in the European elections, then the UK will have closed off all paths aside from the brutal fork in the road which May wishes to confront the rest of us with.
It is a brutal power grab, which is against the economic interests of the country in a softer Brexit, and also against expectations of democratic deliberation that Parliament and the voters have a right to expect. It is a power grab that May, like Liddington, must understand could go ruinously wrong if—emboldened by the threat of a long delay—the hard Brexiteers now tip us into No Deal. And it is power grab that betrays her dishonesty, because it is only days since she told the country that if her deal wasn’t approved, which it has not been, then she would be forced to ask for a long delay while Britain stopped and forged a new plan.
To refuse to countenance a longer extension is to play Russian Roulette with the country’s economy. Conservative Remainers and soft Brexiteers must urgently decide whether they will now attempt to force her to back down—or force her out. At this critical juncture, our awkward introvert of a prime minister has now revealed herself to be a leader who stops, thinks—and then deliberately does the wrong thing.