Theresa May could have minimised the damage by listening to the expertsby Guy de Jonquières / July 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theresa May has survived—for now—the biggest challenge of her two turbulent years as prime minister. She has seen off the Brexiter rebels in her cabinet, regained a measure of control over her party and called a shaky truce in its internecine warfare over her handling of negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
However, at best her White Paper setting out Britain’s Brexit negotiating position only gets her government to the starting grid—which is where it should have been when she triggered Article 50 16 months ago. And with less than nine months left to strike an exit deal, the obstacles ahead remain formidable.
Not only must the White Paper paper win the backing of parliament, where its Tory critics lie in wait to ambush it; it falls well short of meeting the demands of the EU’s 27 other governments that May make further politically painful concessions in order to satisfy them and the European Parliament, which must ratify any deal. For May, the light at the end of the tunnel still looks ominously like an approaching train.
Could she have avoided this predicament? In fairness, “delivering Brexit” would present a monumental challenge for any prime minister. However, May’s limited ministerial experience (she served for a long time but only in the Home Office), her even more limited experience of international diplomacy and of dealing with the EU, combined with a reputation for stubborn obduracy ill-equipped her for the task ahead.
As a result, she has made mistakes that have greatly complicated that task. Another politician, more aware of his or her limitations, might have sought expert advice on how to handle it. However, May froze out those with the greatest relevant expertise, the Foreign Office and Ivan Rogers, Britain’s seasoned permanent representative (ambassador) to the EU.
Instead, she relied heavily for guidance on Nick Timothy, her powerful joint chief of staff during her first year in office and a man with a background entirely in domestic policy-making. He had a nationlistic mindset to match. Her first appointees as Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, meanwhile, were distinguished more by their enthusiasm for Brexit than by their grasp of EU legal and political realities or by their diplomatic and negotiating skills.
“For May, the light at the end of the tunnel still looks ominously like an approaching train”
May was also long deaf to voices from outside Whitehall, even refusing to meet senior representatives from the City and industry who possessed deeper knowledge than her own trusted advisors of the workings of the EU and of the economic implications of Brexit. All this created the strong impression that her strategy, if such it can be called, was being formulated in a vacuum.
That contributed to her next big error, triggering Article 50 too hurriedly, without cabinet agreement on or even discussion of a plan for implementing Brexit. Her defenders argue that the need to keep pro-Leave Tories on side left her little choice. However, that overlooks the fact that, as newly-installed leader of a party ill-disposed to unseat her so soon after a bruising leadership contest, she was in a stronger position than she would be ever again to face down dissent and impose her will. Instead of spending political capital, she chose to hoard it.
May’s evident conviction that party unity required appeasement of the Brexiters also inspired her to lay down her famous “red lines.” That may have bought temporary peace and plaudits at home. But it violated a basic rule of negotiating: never set irreducible conditions unless you are prepared to walk away from the table. That she has not done so, and has instead been forced into a series of retreats, has made her insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal” ring hollow.
Equally misplaced has been the belief that a no-deal Brexit would harm the rest of the EU more than Britain. For the 27 other members, that outcome would be highly disruptive. But for the UK, in the judgment of the vast majority of economists, it would be devastating. Brandishing no-deal as a negotiating weapon is akin to threatening to blow your brains out while warning others that they may suffer a glancing blow from the bullet.
No less bizarre was the government’s refusal to publish its analyses of the economic impact of Brexit, on the grounds that doing so would undermine its negotiating position (the papers were eventually released). That argument rested on the implausible assumption that the European Commission and other EU governments have not conducted their own analyses that reached similarly negative conclusions. And of course they have.
Far more damaging, in truth, was her ill-advised decision to call a snap election in May last year, in the belief that that winning it would strengthen her hand with Brussels. That belief was always highly questionable. What is beyond doubt, though, is that losing her parliamentary majority weakened her still further, so much so that other EU leaders have felt it necessary to try to shore up her diminished political authority at home by offering her gestures of support.
The costs of May’s mistakes and misjudgments are now evident in the serious delays in Britain’s Brexit negotiations, in the lack of public confidence in her handling of them suggested by the opinion polls and in the deep divisions that have opened up in her government and the country. It is remarkable, in the circumstances, that she nonetheless continues to command higher public approval ratings than Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition. But that may say more about the state of British politics today than it does about her own leadership ability.