Even before her first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister, in July, Theresa May said: “We will not allow the country to be defined by Brexit.” The point she was making seemed sensible: She wanted to talk about lots of other important things too, such as education, skills and social mobility.
Nevertheless, I think she made a mistake, which is becoming clearer over time.
First, her aim is pointless, since the country under her administration will be defined by Brexit, whether she likes it or not. She will carry it off well or badly — or, just conceivably, not at all — and by that she will be judged.
Second, Brexit is an enormous thing. You can’t imagine George Washington, having become first president of the United States in 1789, telling the American people that independence was great, but now it was time to talk just about taxes and infrastructure. He would have understood that his overarching task was to make the new republic work. Brexit isn’t quite that big, but it’s big enough.
The task of becoming a self-governing country once again should organise the way government thinks about most other things. It’s not just a complex negotiation: It’s the establishment of a new identity, or at least the recovery of an old one.
Third, May’s wish to avoid definition by Brexit discloses her own unease, maybe even confusion on the subject. She was a Remainer, though not an ardent one, and she has never had to argue for Brexit at the ballot box. We still don’t know whether she sees Brexit as a necessary, but irksome, task like, say, getting rid of Britain’s African colonies in the 1950s or as the great national opportunity of our times.
The fact that she wants to put it in a special file by itself suggests the former. Britain will win more victories if it is the latter. Does she see her task as transforming the country to deal with the change which, as she herself announced in her party conference speech, is coming? Or is she, in the phrase she likes to use in another context, “just managing” it? This unease expresses itself in her decisions and indecisions.
Last week’s Autumn Statement by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, was presented in terms of helping the right sections of society, but it is better understood as an insurance policy to cover what May and Hammond see as a very tricky two or three years. Whatever the merits of the statement, it was not visionary. Or take early dealings with US President-elect Donald Trump. As the political beneficiary of the Brexit decision, May has the chance to range herself with the change-bringers in the free world, not with the status quo. She did not need to buy Trump’s whole bag of tricks (even he doesn’t do that), but she could have been ready to get alongside him — embracing a likely trading alliance with a waxing power, against EU rivals in a waning one. Instead, she looked as if she had sucked a lemon.
Cruel jester that he is, Trump accordingly mocked her by expressing his love for Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom Independence Party leader. Or take the Article 50 legal case, which is now heading for the Supreme Court. The prime minister and the Lord Chancellor should have been instant in defending the integrity of the judges, but tougher in thinking through and publicly expounding the government’s legal case. Why did they not robustly challenge whether the whole thing was justiciable in the first place? They remind me of a rider who heads for a fence while not really believing his horse can jump it. A fall often results.
At her party conference in October, May made two speeches, the first about Brexit, the second about everything else. This was part of her policy of separating the two. It is producing some incoherence. Brexit should not be seen as a special subject on Mastermind (though its negotiating details certainly could be). It is the context for everything. If she sees it that way, May can then bring direction to whatever else she wants to say. Take her support for reviving grammar schools. This has come out looking rather retro and partisan; she may even be tiptoeing away from it. But it could be presented so differently. Suppose she painted a picture of how Britain, out of the EU, would have to live more on its wits than in the past, and how those wits could best be sharpened by a new generation of unashamedly excellent, globally competitive schools.
Then an idea from a chalky old past could be turned into a plan to capture the future. The same with immigration. If we are to trade with the whole world without the protections and restrictions of a European bloc we need a high number of immigrant workers. The point about migration is not to strangle it, but to direct it to our advantage. It is not about giving unfeasibly large numbers of non-British people universal “rights” at the expense of Britons, but about satisfying their needs. One also wants to know much more from May about what she thinks is happening to the world as she works towards Brexit. Does she think that a dark night of illiberalism is descending, or does she believe it is broadly a good thing that voters are trying to reassert their democratic rights over rulers who have taken them for granted? What is her vision of the defence of the West? Does she believe that a strengthening Anglosphere can compensate for a weakening EU?
She has spoken eloquently for the small people who get the headache from globalisation, but how does she think a modern country can reconcile its national independence with forces — often digitally driven — which can sweep the world? In formulating her views on these matters, she is hampered because she had no time to develop them as Opposition leader and has never led her party into an election. Nor has she yet used the “convening power” of her office to rustle up all sorts of able people, inside her party and out of it, to influence her thought and advance it in public.
At present, her style and her advisers are transferred from her time at the Home Office, where she was famous for control. Her two closest aides are able people, but they are a bit like Richard Nixon’s famous pair, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, who were known as the “Berlin Wall” for their ability to cut the president off from others. If a prime minister, in a time of massive change, has not yet formed her own ideas and has few conduits to new ones, she will be the victim of the old orthodoxies. Sure enough, up pop ex-prime ministers — and one recent ex-deputy prime minister. Former prime minister Tony Blair wants to help (“Let’s just keep our options open”). Sir John Major warns against “the tyranny of the majority”. Nick Clegg conjures up an exciting new bogey, “the Brexit elite”, which must be countered.
It all reminds me of Ted Heath in about 1980 warning eloquently, egotistically and misguidedly that if only we could revert to his economic policies, which had quite recently collapsed, all would be well. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher could rebut the seductive arguments of the once-mighty because she had something new to offer. Does May?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Charles Moore is an English journalist and a former editor of the Telegraph.