The governor of the Bank of England — whose forecasts suggest he should avoid a career as a tipster — said last week that interest rates would not rise this month because growth would be lower than expected, at 1.4 per cent. Various reasons were adduced for this sluggishness. The winter weather; Brexit, inevitably. Carney acted as an adjunct of George Osborne’s Project Fear at the referendum, but should now point out that Brexit itself casts no shadow over the economy. What unquestionably does is the way the prime minister is creating an atmosphere of uncertainty by her incompetent handling of this issue.
A year and 11 months since the vote, we have no clear idea of what type of deal Britain is, or is not, likely to have with the EU in terms of access, or otherwise, to its single market. This is because May has proved incapable of leadership on this question — as she has, indeed, on almost everything else. If she has a vision of the outcome she desires for our country, she is keeping it to herself. Business people, here and abroad, are frustrated and angry to have no guidance about what the future holds for their trading plans. Consumers feel anxiety about their jobs and their assets. They hesitate to spend money and, particularly, to make long term financial commitments. Potential overseas investors wonder what sort of country they would be investing in, and how to estimate the return on their investment.
The public perceive a prime minister incapable of taking a decision; so, if to govern is to choose, she cannot govern. Her apparent lack of core political beliefs, notably in Brexit, undermines her and the Government, for there can be no leadership without conviction. She makes matters worse by dividing her Cabinet into two factions warring over the customs agreement with the EU, seemingly abdicating to them the process of taking what has become the most difficult decision of all. Perhaps it is as well, given her Foreign Secretary calls her ideas on the subject “crazy”.
Some colleagues think she is deliberately delaying the process, which seems a charitable explanation for her ineptitude. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and she seem barely on speaking terms. The International Trade Minister offers little consolation from what appears to be his predicament of enforced trappism. The Brexit Secretary went missing in action months ago, and all we hear is that shaping the future of our “deal” has been handed over to a senior civil servant from a cadre committed to stopping Brexit at all costs.
Never has May sought to wrest the initiative from the European Commission and their useful idiots in both Houses of Parliament. Take the Irish situation. A serious Prime Minister would say to Leo Varadkar, the Taioseach, that it will be through no wish of hers that a border with customs posts is reinstated between our countries. She should remind him that a border would have little impact on a UK economy liberated from the overpriced and overregulated cartel of the EU; but will have a shocking effect on Ireland, given the volume of Irish exports that either come to or through the UK. So, a serious Prime Minister would challenge Varadkar to ask his masters in Brussels so stop using Ireland as a stick with which to beat the UK, but to help the UK execute the democratic mandate of its people without making Ireland an economic basket case. Sadly, May seems embarrassed by Brexit, and masochistically keen to be punished for it.
Think tanks bemoan the failure of this government, driven by focus groups and the cult of compromise, to embrace bold policies — and not just on Brexit. May would seem more of a leader if only she could advance the agenda on the other main questions Britain needs resolved — the NHS, defence, infrastructure, crime, housing — instead of appearing paralysed by Brexit. Rather than offer policies, think tanks should provide thoughts on the nature of political leadership: how deep-seated belief, articulated as advocacy, changes minds. The public yearns for it.
Perhaps Sajid Javid can help. It has been disclosed that he regularly reads the courtroom speech by the messianic Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, in which Roark proclaims his absolute right to act as an individual, in keeping with his convictions and integrity, and to reject compromise. One can imagine May being bewildered by Rand’s philosophy, and by her prose style. But if Britain in its peacetime history ever needed Roarkish behaviour from a prime minister, it is now. At least she might then have the courage of our convictions.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Simon Heffer is a British journalist, author and political commentator.