There is nothing, it seems, that Theresa May does not want to make work for “everyone” rather than the “privileged few”. This has been her trademark phrase, bolted on to everything from the economy to democracy. It is, of course, meaningless — unless she can point us to a prime minister who promised to govern for the benefit of the few.
In her New Year message, May went a step further and promised a Brexit that works for everyone, even for those who voted to remain in the European Union. Quite a pledge, but she wanted this to be the year of the olive branch. It didn’t last for long. Within a few sentences she had slipped back to the old sectarian language hailing Brexit voters as the overlooked and downtrodden — standing in contrast, one assumes, to the wealthy and aloof Remainers.
The prime minister should be forgiven for making such points: she backed the losing side in the referendum and often seems to feel (wrongly) guilty about it. Britain remains sore about the referendum. The polls suggest a nation still evenly split. Remnants of both camps are still fighting hard, but there’s a case to be made for peace. And she is the woman to make it.
May is in an enviable position of being a Remainer who is trusted, completely, by Brexiteers. Her much-mocked sound bite, “Brexit means Brexit,” was her way of saying that she could be trusted. There would be no sneaky attempts to be a member in all but name: no free movement of people, no more diktats from European judges and the Article 50 notice served to the EU by April Fool’s Day. At times, she has sounded more strident than any of her colleagues, talking about the referendum as if it were a victory of the masses and an overdue defeat for the “citizens of the world”.
This is the paradox. Had Michael Gove or Boris Johnson won the Tory party leadership, they’d have done far more to reassure Remain voters that Brexit was not a nativist coup. They’d have spent weeks on a love-bombing mission to Europe, offered new scholarships to British universities and new, generous forms of defence and economic cooperation. Daniel Hannan, a leader Leaver, told the European Parliament (in French) that the referendum was a vote against the EU’s bureaucracy, not against Europe.
The Leave campaign offered a liberal and globally minded version of Brexit, one they would have fought hard to project and protect. Instead, it was May who took the crown and she jumped the other way, sounding meaner than the most flinty-hearted Brexiteer. Even Ukip was appalled to see her use the three million EU nationals living in Britain as bargaining chips, but at least, now, there is no Brexiteer who doubts her intentions. She spent the second half of last year establishing herself as the Brexit Boadicea, who enjoys flaying her enemies.
If Leave campaigners have a problem with her nowadays, it is that she can take things a little too far. Her credentials are such that she can now sound more conciliatory and the opportunity to do so will come in her speech about Europe later this month. The idea of a Brexit that works for Remainers is not so preposterous, if you consider the arguments that animated the campaign and the overlap between them. No one was very enthusiastic about the EU itself, which is why Remainers struggled to make a positive case for staying in.
They instead sought to frame the referendum as being about something more: a choice between a Britain that was open or closed, tolerant or bigoted, internationalist or nativist. It was a powerful argument, and remains so now. May can adopt this language, and speak about an open, tolerant global Britain — one that has just voted to lift its sights to more distant horizons.
A country that cherishes immigrants and needs more, albeit under a fairer, accountable admission system. That she looks forward to an end to Australian and Indian immigrants being discriminated against simply because they are not European. At the Davos economic forum later this month she can boast that, at time when protectionism is on the rise, Britain stands ready to champion free trade. She is not used to making such arguments, but this is how Brexit was successfully sold to an outward-looking nation.
If she were to change her mind and allow all EU migrants to stay in Britain, for example, polls suggest she would be thanked by four fifths of the public and a three quarters of Leave voters. The harsh kind of Brexit that she occasionally seems to champion, one that doesn’t much care about uncertainty cast over Polish NHS nurses and their children in British schools, would never have won the referendum. A more emollient tone would also help prepare the ground for what critics would call a “hard Brexit”, which is looking increasingly likely.
Sir Ivan Rogers, our now-departed ambassador to the EU, was probably right to say that most European diplomats think there’s no chance of her agreeing a deal by the next election. The EU’s chief objective is its own survival, and it can scarcely afford to let Britain walk away from the club without any real punishment. May will be negotiating with a wounded beast, one whose leaders face their own Euro-sceptic challengers at home.
The worse things get on the continent, the less the chance of the EU agreeing a sensible compromise with Britain. May seems to sense this, and has started to talk about how no deal is better than a bad deal. She might soon start to make the case for pulling out of talks and falling back on what might be called “global free trade”: the basic rules of the World Trade Organisation.
This is the basis for our trade with the United States, our biggest export market, so it’s hardly a disaster. It would leave her free to cut deals with any country in the world, on her own terms. But politically, she would need to make this sound like a positive choice, not the result of failure in Brussels. All told, the Prime Minister has chosen the right moment to stop talking as if she was somehow elected to govern for the 52 per cent and reach out to Remainers, too. Whether at home or abroad, she will soon need every friend she can get.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017