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…