May’s blunders that led to Brexit chaos

Four key post-referendum mistakes by the Prime Minister resulted in the shambolic climax to her strategy for the UK leaving the EU

An obsessive desire not to reveal her hand: Theresa May in Brussels in March to plead for a Brexit extension (© European Union/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images)

Writing as I am eight days before the United Kingdom is still due to leave the European Union, two key questions need to be examined. Are Theresa May’s unique qualities the reason that Britain’s position is in quite the mess it is? Or are the circumstances so difficult that no Prime Minister could have delivered a smoother Brexit process?

May has followed a four-step programme which has led to the current chaos. After she became Prime Minister on July 13, 2016 she should have set out her vision of Brexit — but she did not. She should indeed have set out this vision during the Conservative leadership election precipitated by Leave’s victory in the June 23, 2016 referendum. If the leadership election had gone to a full membership ballot May would have had to go around Britain speaking to Conservative Party activists that July and August — and would have been pressed to set out her position before the result was announced on September 9. Andrea Leadsom’s unfortunate interview with The Times, in which she stated that May “possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people . . . but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be part of what happens next”, derailed her campaign. May thus did not face two months of scrutiny which would almost certainly have pressed her into a more robust position to appeal to the Eurosceptic grassroots when up against a politician who had assiduously campaigned for Leave during the referendum campaign.

May’s position during the referendum campaign had uncanny resemblances to that of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Both nominally campaigned for Remain — but did as little as they could possibly get away with. May gave one major speech but did little else; Corbyn found excuses to avoid all but the most desultory campaigning. Indeed, leading figures in the Leave campaign believe that the Leader of the Opposition’s lack of commitment was the single most important factor in securing their victory — certainly much more important than the social media campaign that Remainer conspiracy theorists such as the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr so obsess about. Corbyn’s lacklustre campaign was at first ascribed by some to his more general lacklustreness — but his stellar performance during the 2017 general election decisively showed otherwise.

Corbyn’s disappearing act was motivated by his lifelong anti-Europeanism (or rather opposition to European integration, believing it to be a boss-class racket) and his fond desire to build socialism in one country. He would probably have come out for Leave if he had not realised that this would undercut part of his support base. May’s reticence was motivated purely by political expediency.

On becoming Prime Minster all we got from May were the bromides of “Brexit means Brexit” and the truly nonsensical commitment to a “Red, White and Blue Brexit”. Her reluctance to set out her position is politically understandable. The Conservative Party has been riven by divisions on Europe since the late 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s belated realisation that the European project was indeed an attempt to build a new polity and subsume its constituent states. Ever since then, the key battleground in the Tory Party has been about Europe — from the fights over the Maastricht treaty to today’s battles over Brexit and the form it will take. There have been other issues the Conservatives have been divided over — such as whether to be a socially liberal or conservative party, exemplified over its troubles with same-sex marriage — but the battle has always returned to its central field — Europe.

The new Prime Minister thus had every motive to be opaque about what she wanted over Europe; it enabled the different Tory factions all to imagine that she was on their own side. She first faced difficulties from her pro-European flank in pushing through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, and has only really been besieged by the hard Brexiteers of the European Research Group since she had to open up her own position at the Chequers summit of last July. May’s prime political tactic has been not showing her own hand and delaying — this worked well for her for quite a while, but has made things far worse as we move towards the crunch.

May’s unwillingness to reveal her hand has been matched by Corbyn’s. His motives are rather different. While he and the Stalinist brains of his operation — Seumas Milne and, to an even greater extent, Andrew Murray — are united in their lifelong antipathy towards European integration, most of Corbyn’s adoring fans among the millennials are ardent pro-Europeans. Until very recently they have tried to block out this dissonance, aided by Corbyn’s silence — but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them.

The pro-Europeanism of Labour’s new recruits incidentally shows up the fact that, while nearly every far-left groupuscule has jumped on the Corbyn bandwagon, Corbynism is not predominantly an entryist project à la Militant in the 1980s. The one thing that unites the sectarian far Left is their opposition to the EU and all its works. It is one of the reasons that pro-European demonstrations took so long to take off the ground after the 2016 referendum. Left-wing protest, from Stop the War to student demonstrations, relies on the organisational abilities of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party — just look at how many SWP banners there are at any such demo compared with how many people actually are members of the party. There were no seasoned organisers to kick off pro-European demonstrations — hence their relatively late emergence. Corbynism has galvanised hundreds of thousands, perhaps half a million, to take up some form of political activism; the committed sectarian Left all bundled together amounts to low tens of thousands. The contradictions at the heart of the Corbynista alliance may yet cause it to unravel.

May’s European ambiguity has been enabled by Corbyn’s own ambiguities — if she had been pressed hard on Europe by the Opposition she would have found it much more difficult to avoid nailing down her own position.

May’s vacillations have facilitated, indeed made inevitable, the second necessary step on her road to the current chaos. Since she did not express a clear vision it was easy for the civil service to fill that gap and take hold of the negotiations. Olly Robbins, her key mandarin and adviser on all things European, would not have had the room for manoeuvre he has had with a different Prime Minister possessing a clearer vision.

If the Boris Johnson/Michael Gove axis had not fallen so horribly apart during the 2016 leadership campaign one would probably have seen the biggest possible contrast to May’s reliance on the civil service. Gove, in particular, has displayed a disdain for Whitehall advice and thinking in all his roles, especially as Secretary of State for Education, and has been very antagonistic towards it. His pronouncement during the referendum campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts” was not an aberration.

Having said that, if Gove had taken control of Brexit negotiations a whole set of other issues might have arisen, especially if he had heavily relied upon — as he almost certainly would have — his close confidant, Vote Leave strategist and lead protagonist of the television drama Uncivil War Dominic Cummings. Too much of Cummings’s blue sky Odyssean thinking would probably, to put it mildly, not have been a recipe for success in disentangling the UK from the European project. Many of those closely involved in Vote Leave believe that Cummings is not the egotistical, mad genius portrayed in Uncivil War — although there is much more consensus among those who have worked with him on those two adjectives than on the noun they qualify.

The one issue where May has very much had her own way in terms of Brexit — and another step towards where we are today — is that she has framed the debate largely in terms of immigration. She shared this mistake with her predecessor, David Cameron. During his own attempt to renegotiate our relationship with the EU in the run-up to the referendum Cameron saw his task as obtaining as much of an opt-out as possible from the Union’s free movement rules — with very limited success. Free movement is an issue on which the EU has proved remarkably intransigent. Cameron did get his purely cosmetic opt-out from “ever closer union” — but not much else. If he had sought other more profound opt-outs, which some EU insiders believe he could have obtained, he might well have been able to make a better case for how the UK’s relationship with the EU would fundamentally change after his deal even without leaving the union. He chose not to go down that route — and lost.

Even for someone so identified with the anti-immigration stance as former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, free movement was a tool in his attacks on the EU and not its purpose. When Farage was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999 there was no mention of immigration in any of his campaign literature. This all changed with the accession of the first eight relatively poor Central and East European states in 2004 — and immigration and EU membership became intertwined as an issue. Farage put it thus in 2016: “Make immigration and EU membership synonymous, I’ve spent ten years trying to do just that.” For him this was the strongest tool in his anti-EU armoury.

For May things look rather different. Anna Soubry, the Tory MP who defected to the Independent Group, is clearly right when she says that May has a thing about immigration. It was May as Home Secretary who foisted upon the Tories the unrealistic target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands. The one issue which seems to ignite May’s passion — other than having an antagonistic approach towards the police, be it when attacking their closed-shop-type working practices or saying that she would end the routine use of stop and search as she pledged on the steps of 10 Downing Street when becoming Prime Minister — is opposition to immigration. By centring so much of her government’s Brexit negotiating strategy on free movement, May almost ensured that she would get a rotten deal from the EU. Her approach to the EU is the mirror-opposite of Corbyn’s: May seems to have no real issue with the European integrationist agenda but is strongly opposed to free movement; Corbyn hates everything about the EU with the one exception of being an ardent supporter of free movement.

Finally, if May had not called her wholly unnecessary 2017 general election and thrown away the Conservative majority, the Brexit process would not now be in the dire state it is. The Conservative majority was slender before 2017 — but more generous than it at first looked as she could even then have relied on the 11 Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, probably more so than now as two were then from the more moderate and more Tory-aligned Ulster Unionist Party rather than from the DUP. May’s argument for calling an election was that she needed a larger majority to push through Brexit; she returned with no majority, making the task more difficult by her own rationale. It seems more likely that her real reason for calling the election was rather different: it is not that she did not have the votes to push through Brexit but that she did not have the votes to push through her kind of Brexit. May probably thought that, with a thumping parliamentary majority and a personal mandate, the Tory hardliners of the ERG would surely fall into line behind her. If they didn’t, they could be ignored. The calculation obviously misfired — and, what is more, in the eyes of other European leaders she was not now a new Prime Minister with a massive majority but a proven political loser.

Other Prime Ministers might have made one or two of May’s mistakes. But all four? Those four missteps have left us in the ludicrously uncertain position we face at the end of the month in which we were due to leave the EU.

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