An error of judgement can irrevocably change the political life of a person. Theresa May’s decision to call an early election in 2017 did that. Since then, she has hobbled on, from one disaster to another, against all the odds. Her brazen attitude makes up for her lack of competence.
The alternative to May is a washed-out old socialist who once praised the Chavez and Castro regimes. At one point during his political life, Jeremy Corbyn seemed to show more enthusiasm for the excesses of the Irish Republican Army, Hamas and Hezbollah than for British democracy.
Corbyn is no ordinary relic from the ‘loony left’; he is its high priest and ambassador extraordinaire. The fact that May is trailing him in the polls points to her complete ineptitude to manage all things political. She cannot command the respect she needs to negotiate Brexit.
In a statement to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister outlined the points to an agreement she intends to discuss with the EU. Initially, its details were presented to the Cabinet during a tense meeting at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.
Upon their arrival, ministers were asked to hand their mobile phones to prevent leaks. May’s team fails to draw lessons from history for there is no way one can avoid leaks during such tense discussions. In fact, there was no discussion. The Cabinet was presented with a fait accompli.
Rumours are circulating that business cards from a local taxi firm were available in the off-chance that any minister should choose to resign, thus losing the privilege of a ministerial car. May sought to assert her authority.
David Davis, then secretary of state for exiting the European Union, made it clear he did not support every clause. Boris Johnson, at the time foreign secretary, put it more crudely and described the agreement as an exercise in “polishing a turd”.
However, both Cabinet members sipped Pol Roger and toasted the deal.
These supposedly principled gentlemen did not fancy the walk of shame down the Chequers driveway. They bided their time before handing in their resignations two days later, on July 9.
Johnson, whose ambition should not be underestimated, delivered a devastating blow to the Prime Minister’s plan. His letter of resignation says that Brexit is being killed by “needless self-doubt”. He points to the fact that, for an opening bid, the Chequers agreement makes too many concessions: “It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white ﬂags ﬂuttering above them.”
He acknowledged he tried to support the agreement. However, he found that the words stick in his throat: “We must have collective responsibility. Since I cannot in all conscience champion these proposals, I have sadly concluded that I must go.”
Despite these setbacks, and regardless of her dwindling support within the Conservative Party, May seems to want to forge ahead.
May’s reluctance to outline her vision of Brexit (assuming she had one) made the waters murkier
Davis was replaced by Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt took over from Johnson.
Raab is a competent minister while Hunt, a once-unpopular health secretary, has to step up in his new role.
What of the Chequers agreement itself?
As an opening bid, it is somewhat disappointing. It is misleadingly being presented as a final agreement but its details need to be ironed out.
Some provisions are good. A hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland must be prevented at all costs. An internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be equally undesirable. Moreover, a UK-EU trade agreement is necessary.
Other provisions are poorly conceived. The decision to have an agreement on goods while excluding services is illogical. Trading in products often involves agreements regarding financing or servicing. Separating commodities in this manner is hard. Moreover, the British economy depends overwhelmingly on services.
Crucially, these proposals fail to satisfy those who have been asking for a hard Brexit. These are a constituency that cannot be ignored. Both sides of the debate are to blame for the mess in the wake of the 2016 referendum. Staunch Brexiteers failed to provide an alternative coherent plan while the Remain camp is intent on reiterating the debates of the referendum. Thus, the way forward is fraught with divisions.
May’s reluctance to outline her vision of Brexit (assuming she had one) made the waters murkier. Voters were told that “Brexit means Brexit”. She promised a “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. This is not just poor rhetoric and sloppy thinking, it is deceitful. Immigration, trade and nationalism all played a part in delivering the 2016 referendum result. However, Brexit is ultimately about asserting Britain’s prime constitutional principle – that of parliamentary sovereignty.
The EU must resist the temptation of punishing Britain. Unnecessary antagonism would achieve nothing. Britain remains a key ally and partner in the field of security and defence. A robust trade agreement is advantageous to both sides.
However, the British government needs to get its act together. May would do well to heed the advice of Sir John Major that “when the curtain falls, it’s time to get off the stage”. She should have long taken her curtain call. The time is now ripe for her colleagues to take stock of the situation and to have the courage to push her off the stage. She no longer has the moral authority to speak on their behalf.
André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.