The writer is a lawyer and a keen observer of European affairs, and works in the UK and France

A mess that May can’t get the UK out of

Published Jun 20, 2017, 12:58 am IST
Updated Jun 20, 2017, 12:58 am IST
If no agreement is reached, the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal and chaos results.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo: AP)
 British Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo: AP)

I got us into this mess; I’ll get us out”, so said Prime Minister Theresa May to her MPs four days after the recent general election. Most of the country would probably agree with the first sentiment; rather fewer would agree with the second. To understand why, let’s backtrack. On becoming Prime Minister, Ms May had said she wouldn’t call a general election. She had a small majority in the House of Commons and could probably have survived the remainder of her term. Then in mid-April she suddenly changed her mind. She wanted a personal mandate. She said she needed a healthy majority to see her through the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. No doubt that figured in her calculations. But also no doubt a Conservative Party opinion poll lead of some 20 points figured at least as highly. She wanted to smash the Labour Party and establish the Conservatives as the natural home of the Brexit-voting working classes. Ms May fought the election on her personal standing: she would be a strong and stable leader, trusted to stand up for the country against the European Union. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, would be weak and chaotic.

Having made leadership qualities central to the campaign, Ms May then proceeded to demonstrate conclusively that she lacked them. She parroted party slogans; she refused to take part in televised debates with other party leaders; she failed to answer questions put to her in TV interviews; and she shied away from meeting electors. Instead she favoured stage-managed meetings with Conservative Party supporters, who put pre-determined questions to which she gave rehearsed answers. Unsurprisingly, Ms May came across as unimaginative, unconvincing and robotic. Her campaign was an embarrassment for all concerned: her, her party and the electorate. Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, far exceeded all expectations. He showed himself to be in touch with the people’s concerns. He toured the country energetically, evidently relished meeting voters and debated personally all comers. But above all, he enthused the young. And it showed. Far from turning her small majority into a comfortable one, Ms May succeeded in losing it entirely. The Labour Party, far from being smashed, is resurgent. Its share of the vote increased by 10 points and it is now fewer than three points behind the Conservatives. The Labour Party also seems to have become the repository of the hopes of the remainers, those who voted in last year’s referendum to remain in the EU.

The higher the remain vote in a constituency, the better the Labour Party did. Interestingly though, in seats where the majority had voted to leave, Labour largely managed to maintain is vote. But this is just the start of Ms May’s difficulties. Once the results were in, Ms May’s first move was to approach the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to forge a pact. Numerically that may work. A pact with the DUP would create a bloc in the House of Commons with an effective overall majority of five seats. On every other level, however, it does not.
The DUP is a Northern Ireland party which follows a hard-line Unionist approach: sectarian, distrustful of cooperation with the Republic of Ireland and reluctant in its participation in the Northern Irish peace process. There are also rumours of links with former Unionist paramilitaries. This would be bad enough, but the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland has collapsed and the UK government is required to be an honest broker in putting it back together. Linked to the DUP, giving the impression of impartiality and objectivity necessary for that role will be difficult.

But it gets worse. Amongst the DUP’s 10 MPs are fundamentalist Christians and climate-change deniers. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who now number 13 MPs, is a lesbian and is deeply sceptical of the tieup with the DUP. The Scottish Conservatives are also angling for the UK to remain in the EU single market and customs union, a so-called “soft” Brexit. The DUP says it supports a “hard” Brexit. It also seems that Ms May has learnt nothing from her campaign debacle. Last week Grenfell Tower, a highrise tower block of social housing in west London, burnt down. At least 79 people were presumed killed, and while the final death toll is still not known, the surviving inhabitants are bereaved, homeless and angry. It seems that the fire prevention systems were wholly inadequate and fire-resistant cladding for the building had been rejected to save on costs, which were minimal. Ms May’s instinct was to meet senior firefighters; Mr Corbyn’s was to meet the victims. Following criticism, Ms May then went to meet the victims. But the damage had been done; Ms May was booed and jeered. One wonders how long Ms May can continue so spectacularly to get it so wrong.

Meanwhile, a deadline approaches. On Wednesday there is the Queen’s speech, when the government puts its programme before the House of Commons. Yet a deal with the DUP has still not been finalised. We also do not yet know what will be in it, though it will probably include a wish to seek a hard Brexit. Three Cabinet ministers are said to have threatened to resign if the government did not adopt a hard-Brexit position. If the Queen’s speech proposes a hard Brexit, the soft-Brexit Conservative MPs will face a choice: back Ms May or rebel. If they rebel, the government will probably fall. Labour would then seek to form a new administration, and lacking the numbers, would probably fail. It would then have the right to call another general election, which it could well win. For that reason, the soft-Brexiters will probably refrain from voting against the government; at least for now.

There is another deadline too: March 29, 2019. By that date the UK must have agreed a deal with the EU on the terms of its departure, whether soft-Brexit, hard-Brexit or no Brexit. If no agreement is reached, the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal and chaos results. The deadline can only be extended with the EU’s agreement. As the Brexit negotiations get underway in earnest, the task of simultaneously satisfying both soft and hard Brexiters on the Conservative benches is likely to become too much; particularly for someone so lacking in imagination and flexibility as Ms May. If it does, she is likely to fall and another election is likely to take place. The EU will then look on with incredulity as the UK thrashes about, yet again unable to choose a government and unable to decide what it wants. All the while, the clock will be ticking. As Laurel and Hardy might have put it: here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.

 




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