The prime minister’s short-termism explains why we are in this mess todayby Christopher Grey / April 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
Theresa May is, as the title of Rosa Prince’s biography of her has it, an enigmatic prime minister. In the early months of her premiership that led many to think that she was concealing a well-thought out strategy for Brexit.
Initially, the PM made conciliatory noises suggesting that she recognised that Britain was a deeply divided country and that Brexit could only be delivered consensually. Her strategic task could and should have been to lead that.
Three years on, and it is clear that neither this nor any other strategy existed. There has never been an overarching plan for the long-term good. Rather, May’s stock-in-trade is relentlessly tactical. The sole focus is on immediate wins. In an interview last February she made a highly revealing comment, saying with her trademark irascibility: “Why is it that people are always trying to look for the next thing after the next thing after the next thing? It is pointless, we should focus on what we are doing now …”
This fundamental character flaw has got her, and Brexit, and Britain, into the real trouble it is in today. Always positioning for immediate advantage, and day-to-day survival, she has created long-term traps in place of long-term strategy.
The most egregious example was her 2016 conference speech. Until then, May had stuck to her Delphic “Brexit means Brexit” line. Now, in exchange for immediate acclaim from the delegates and approving headlines, she first articulated the red lines on the single market, customs union, and the European Court of Justice which have defined her Brexit policy.
It’s unclear whether at that time the PM fully understood their implications but, in any case, from that moment she had set the expectations of the hard Brexiters in her party. Any departure from the red lines would lead to accusations of betrayal.
Yet strategic thinking would have told her that such a departure was inevitable, both for economic reasons and because, even then, the parliamentary arithmetic required it. When that finally became clear, with the Chequers proposal of July 2018, the hard Brexiters in the cabinet and on the backbenches turned on her. A strategist would have known they were always going to. As her predecessors had found, whatever the Ultras were given they would ask for more.
But the back track wasn’t enough to bring the “Remain” parts of her party, whom May had thus far disdained, on board. Since then, she has repeatedly flip-flopped between the two wings of her party and in consequence alienated both. From that has flowed her repeated failure to get her deal through parliament, and all the defections, resignations and rebellions of her MPs.
May’s premiership is littered with examples of tactical decisions coming back to haunt her. Fighting tooth and nail to win the Gina Miller Supreme Court case on triggering Article 50 massively ramped up the toxicity of the Brexit debate. Yet when it was lost, and the eventual vote overwhelmingly supported triggering Article 50, it was clear how unnecessary a fight that had been.
Similarly, boxing herself in—again at the 2016 conference—to initiating the formal Brexit process by the end of March 2017 set the time line that has proved impossible to stick to.
It is tactical thinking that has led her to take so many dogmatic positions that she has had to disown: that calling an election wouldn’t be in the “national interest,” that Brexit day must be on 29th March and any extension was unthinkable, and then that any extension entailing European elections couldn’t be countenanced.
The example that probably did the most damage to the negotiations with the EU was that May became fixated on completing phase one of the talks in December 2017. This was entirely driven by the attempt to ward off criticism that insufficient progress was being made. Getting phase one done entailed agreeing to the (original version of the) Irish backstop. But once it was done, she immediately repudiated it and the consequence was that virtually no progress was made on phase two and that many of her MPs never accepted the case for even the revised backstop. Again, short-term tactics precipitated long-term problems.
Currently, the PM still harbours hopes that with one last heave she will get her deal over the line. But suppose she does. It will be based on the grudging votes of MPs who don’t truly support it. The perfect legacy of a PM who thinks it pointless to look beyond the immediate task will be the years of bitter disputes it will engender.