Mrs May’s Sense Of Direction

“Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election — just before Standpoint went to press — will surely come to be seen as a stroke of genius.”

Manchester Square

Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election — just before Standpoint went to press — will surely come to be seen as a stroke of genius. Although it came out of the blue, even for the Westminster lobby, its justification was instantly apparent and her logic irresistible. Indeed, future historians may conclude that it was unavoidable, if only because there was no other way of ensuring that the Prime Minister could carry out what she clearly sees as her overriding purpose: to obey the majority who voted last year to leave the European Union. Britain — and especially England — expects that Mrs May will do her duty.

Compare Theresa May’s clear sense of direction with Donald Trump’s erratic policy shifts and abrupt personnel changes. The President has now been in office for 100 days: a good moment to take stock. To this end, we have assembled experts on both sides of the Atlantic to audit the Trump administration’s foreign and domestic policies. The avalanche of acrimony unleashed by and upon the Trump presidency has made it almost impossible to achieve any degree of objectivity on the subject.

There is still no sign of consensus on Mr Trump. His character and conduct continue to polarise not only Americans, but the whole West, and indeed the rest. However, the US strike on Syria and the subsequent diplomatic offensive against North Korea have served to rally international support at least temporarily. Even Moscow and Beijing seemed taken aback by the speed and decisiveness with which Assad was punished for what he and they must have assumed would be ignored in Washington as merely one more atrocity. The White House and the Pentagon also need to coordinate their plans before they go public. Of course, the more hawkish and interventionist Mr Trump becomes, the more he will galvanise opposition at home and abroad. But friends and foes alike now know that this President does not draw red lines and then allow them to be crossed. Instead, he strikes without warning; and his unpredictability could work to his advantage. He may not yet be a neoconservative, but he has certainly been mugged by reality.

Whereas the jury is still out on the Trump presidency, on Brexit we have at least a provisional verdict. Even before the election announcement, public opinion in Britain had moved decisively in favour of Brexit going ahead. There is little appetite for a second referendum or for a “soft Brexit”; the public overwhelmingly supports Theresa May’s negotiating stance. Like her, the public wants free trade with Europe, but control of immigration too. However settled, this view has failed to deter the bad losers: those who have neither the desire nor the capacity to recover from last year’s defeat, and who now exhibit a perverse schadenfreude at every opportunity that presents itself — such as the threats and slights that still emanate from continental capitals and Eurocrats about Brexit.  

Hence it should come as no surprise that Peter Mandelson has advised the European Union to treat the Brexit negotiations as an opportunity to punish the British. Last month Lord Mandelson told Die Zeit: “Forget Great Britain, and look after your own interests.” This is the former EU Commissioner who likes to boast: “I was a Remainer, not because of my pension rights but because I am a patriot — a patriot, not a nationalist.” In his eagerness to see his compatriots forced to rue the day they voted to turn their backs on Brussels, he speaks for a minority of unabashed Remainers who are still bitter about last year’s referendum. The vast majority who voted Remain, whether out of conviction or because they were alarmed by “project fear”, have accepted that Britain is leaving the EU. A few — Remain’s Remainder — are working round the clock to reverse the result.

Like the Jacobites of the 18th century, they prefer to give their allegiance, not to the British Crown, but to the king across the water — or rather, to the presidents of the EU (of whom there are too many to list here). Many of these latter-day Jacobites are intellectuals, but they are still in denial about what they claim “the far Right” have done to the UK. They refuse to think Brexit will actually happen, despite all evidence to the contrary, because it is “too difficult”. Not all our European neighbours agree with the ultra-Remainers’ pessimism. Matthias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, thinks Brexit will make the UK “highly attractive” to investors: “In three to five years from now, my bet would be that England will be better-off than continental Europe.”

In 1940 many thought Hitler could never be defeated. Some crossed the line between pessimism and treason: the Duke of Windsor tried to persuade Americans not to enter the war on Britain’s side. Yet such diehards were few. Just as in May 1940 the vast majority of those who had supported appeasement (including Chamberlain himself) and those who had opposed it united behind Churchill in order to win the war, so today Mrs May has an opportunity to unite the nation in order to keep the peace. For all its fiendish complexity and booby traps (Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar are cases in point), Brexit is not only possible but an urgent necessity. We have only to compare the present task with more daunting challenges in the past, to which the British and their leaders have always risen. However we may have voted last year, however we may vote next month, the outcome cannot now be ducked. After June 8, a reunited nation can move on from Brexit and address the threats with which President Trump is grappling. In Churchill’s words, “The life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”