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Theresa May is up for a fight, and that could be her best Brexit strategy

Playing the nice guy with the EU did her predecessor no good at all — a different approach is now required in untying the Brexit knot

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She wouldn’t welcome the comparison, but Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has rather a lot in common with America’s President-elect Donald Trump. Both are wary of globalisation in general and its high priests in particular. They’re tough on immigration and don’t seem to care much if their ideas for controlling it are impractical. They celebrate patriotism, make little effort to woo the media and seem to enjoy dealing sharply with their enemies. Both talk about an economic system rigged against ordinary citizens, and promise to overturn it. It’s fairly easy to understand why May wanted no part in the European Union’s (EU) post-Trump crisis conference: She doesn’t see it as a crisis. She worked out some time ago that populism is simply a name an establishment gives to policies it dislikes and that, if people’s concerns are addressed, populism tends to go away.

French President Francois Hollande may be terrified of Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader in France; German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be appalled at the success of Alternative fur Deutschland. But in Britain, May barely faces a challenge — let alone an attack. Her opinion poll lead looks impregnable and United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) is now a danger only to itself. If history is on the turn, then May seems on the right side of it. She has taken the Brexit vote as her mandate to usher in a new form of politics — and style of leadership. Her Tory conference speech, denouncing “citizens of the world” and pledging an end to free movement of people, was viewed with horror by the same European leaders who revile Trump. But given that May’s premiership may end up being defined by negotiations with these leaders, a little horror can go a long way. If anything, she seems to be embracing her “killer queen” reputation — as I saw for myself earlier this month, when she was named politician of the year at the Spectator’s parliamentarian awards. We’d expected May to saunter up to the stage, make a couple of scripted gags, then go home.

Instead, when her name was called, she took off her coat to reveal a yellow high-vis jacket and walked towards the stage resplendent in a hard hat. To the delight of the audience, it was a joke at the expense of George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer, who was standing next to her as the guest of honour. “Come on, we’re all builders now!” she exclaimed. She handed him the hat, as if he were a cloakroom attendant, then got stuck into her foreign secretary. In an earlier speech, Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, had likened himself to an Alsatian said to have been assaulted by Michael Heseltine. “The dog was put down”, she told him from the podium. “When its master decided it wasn’t needed any more.” Johnson looked quite terrified. Afterwards, the guests — including several of her own ministers - discussed what it could all mean. There was no doubt about her sense of humour: who could have predicted she’d come dressed up as George Osborne, her vanquished enemy?

But joking apart, was she serious about dispensing with her Foreign Secretary? The fate of Osborne seemed to suggest that she was. Or her treatment of Sir Craig Oliver, former British prime minister David Cameron’s former spin doctor, who also was given a taste of her bazooka that night. All of this seemed intended to reinforce the image of May as a kind of playful Tory Boudica. Someone who quite enjoys political violence; someone with whom it’s best not to mess. And if her ideas go down badly with the press: Well, she doesn’t mind that either. For example, I was (and remain) dismayed at her refusal to assure EU nationals that they will be allowed to stay in Britain. But not many others are. I was appalled at the proposal to make companies report how many foreigners they employ.

But again, I’m in a minority: This idea is wildly popular in Britain, with 60 per cent support. To those who say that May is not governing and does nothing all day apart from dodge questions about Brexit and flay her enemies, she can point to her personal approval rating. It is nothing short of extraordinary, especially for someone who didn’t win a general election. Her refusal to say anything about Brexit — other than the fact that it means “Brexit” — might drive politicians mad, but voters don’t seem to mind. And such vagueness will be useful when dealing with a EU that treated Cameron so shamefully in his negotiations. He tried his best to be open, and to make friends on the continent. I was once invited to one of his charm offensives: A dinner at Chequers with Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, whom he regaled with stories about Sir Winston Churchill and even his (presumably invented) love of Dutch art. It was a sight to behold. But such oiling (as the Etonians call it) takes time and effort, and must have exhausted him.

When the time came, the EU thought that kindly Cameron would accept a tokenistic renegotiation. They were, alas, quite right. His successor has at least two years of Brexit talks ahead of her, with a panicked EU now held together not by a common purpose but by countries’ fear of what might happen if they leave. There is a political need to deny May what she wants, to show that Britain is being made to suffer — while somehow preserving its tariff-free market for Volkswagens and Prosecco.

It will be an unrelenting game of diplomatic poker. The same game that Cameron — with his bonhomie, decency and transparency — comprehensively lost. There is another way to handle these talks. Former US president Richard Nixon called it the Madman theory, where you let your opponent think you’re crazy enough to act destructively. Under this theory, a prime minister would go about making jokes about euthanising the foreign secretary and be serious about holding open the prospect of mass deportations. Or she’d ask a proven self-detonator like Britain’s Brexit Secretary David Davis to be chief Brexit negotiator, then pick a fight with her country’s own Supreme Court about how to leave the EU. So May’s best Brexit strategy may lie in her presenting herself as someone who is unafraid of a fight, doesn’t really mind who she upsets — and is, above all, capable of doing anything. And on this, she has certainly made a convincing start.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016

Fraser Nelson is the editor of the Spectator.

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