In just two days the British public will vote in a general election, the second in two years. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called it to capitalise on the Labour Party’s apparent weakness and boost her slim overall majority. Her calculation was that she needed a healthy number of MPs loyal to her to see her through the imminent and bruising negotiations to take the UK out of the European Union. The Conservative Party has characterised this election as an opportunity to choose a leader for the Brexit negotiations. If its propaganda is to be believed, it is a stark choice between the “strong and stable leadership” of Ms May and a “coalition of chaos” led by the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. If your tastes lie in the other direction, however, then it’s a stark choice between a Labour government “for the many, not the few” and the “weak and wobbly” Ms May. Actually, both parties are right. When it comes to the Brexit negotiations, there is little to choose between them. They are both hopelessly chaotic, weak and wobbly; and it may be added cowardly and deluded. Take Ms May first. She supported Britain’s continued membership of the EU in the referendum last year; at least nominally. But so lukewarm and so low-key was her campaigning that she was known as “Submarine May”. The few public speeches she made in favour of the UK’s remaining in the EU were so caveated and qualified that it was hard to tell where she stood. Following the narrow victory for the “Leave” side and David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister, she stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She won it on the basis that she was a “safe pair of hands” who respected the referendum result, and would manage the exit process in a sombre and professional way. In fact, Ms May has been anything but a safe pair of hands.
Her first step was to divide up responsibilities for Brexit between a new department for exiting the European Union, the foreign office and the department for international trade. Smart politics it may have been, enabling Ms May to divide and rule; but as a technique for forging a coherent policy it has been hopeless. Her next move was to declare unilaterally that the UK would serve formal notice to start the departure negotiations by the end of March 2017. This deadline was entirely unnecessary, entirely self-imposed and entirely reckless. It has meant there has been precious little time to plan in detail how to extricate the UK from a relationship of over 40 years’ standing and what to put in its place. All the while Ms May declared that she would not call an early general election; until she decided to do just that. The general election continues to expose the shallowness of Ms May’s resolve. Inserted in the Conservative manifesto, apparently by Ms May acting alone with her closest advisers, was a policy that elderly patients suffering from dementia should be required to pay for their care from the sale of their homes. It meant in effect that those who died quickly would be able to leave the full value of their estates to their children; those who died from lingering conditions would not. The proposal was swiftly dubbed the “dementia tax” by the Opposition and just as swiftly dropped by Ms May. This is the first time ever that a major political party has executed so obvious and glaring a U-turn on a manifesto commitment during a general election campaign. Ms May’s reputation for constancy and reliability has been badly dented. The appalling terrorist attacks in Manchester on May 22 and in London last weekend might have been expected to boost Ms May’s standing by allowing her to show resolution and firmness. But it doesn’t appear so. Since the dementia tax debacle, the opinion polls suggest that there has been a marked decline in support for the Conservatives. Some of them even suggest that Ms May could lose her small overall majority. While this still seems unlikely, it does appear that she will fail to increase her majority by much.
But Mr Corbyn is little better. His behaviour during the referendum was disgraceful. The Labour Party’s official position, adopted democratically and properly, was that the UK should stay in the EU. Far from vigorously promoting this position, Mr Corbyn took a week’s holiday during the campaign. He publicly stated that his support for the EU was equivocal. With such leadership, it’s no wonder that a third of Labour voters had no idea of the Labour Party’s official position. Had they been given an idea, the result could well have been different. Since the referendum result Mr Corbyn has not improved. As Ms May has bent to the extreme Brexiters, promising to take the UK out of both the European single market and the European customs union, Mr Corbyn has followed her. Both Labour and Conservative are now in favour of a so-called “hard Brexit”: an outcome that would cripple the British economy. That would be bad enough, but they compound the idiocy of their positions with dishonesty. Ms May says that she seeks an “ambitious free trade agreement” with the EU and also controls on the free movement of workers from the EU. The Labour Party says it wants to obtain an agreement which will give benefits equivalent to membership of the single market, and also to have a “fair” immigration policy for incoming EU workers.
Neither of these arrangements is remotely achievable. The 27 remaining members of the EU have made abundantly clear, again and again, that full access to the single market requires full acceptance of the free movement of EU workers. There is absolutely no reason to think the 27 nations are bluffing. This is a condition that they impose on themselves and they see no justification for treating the UK differently. Anyway, for many citizens of the 27, the free movement of persons is a good in its own right. At some point then, something will have to give. Either the UK will crash out of the single market and customs union — in which case we can look forward to massive dislocation as firms relocate to the 27 nations and trade tariffs are imposed. Or the UK will have to accept the free movement of EU workers — in which case the major part of the political class will be shown to have grievously misled the electorate, exacerbating precisely the mood that created the mess the UK is now in. So much then for “strong and stable leadership”....