In the most trying of times, someone usually comes forth to save the day. Clichéd as it may be, the installation of Winston Churchill as wartime Prime Minister may be the most obvious and prominent example. But – faced with Brexit, possibly the biggest challenge since those years – Britain is today been lumbered with Theresa May.
We have had bad Prime Ministers before, of course. But none quite so spectacularly inept and unsuited to the job, and none, either, in such a time of need for strength, ability, charisma, and political nous.
Instead, we are stultifying under a leader so bland; so bereft of positive, interesting policy; so incapable of instilling inspiration and optimism; that her own, unnecessary General Election squandered a 40-point opinion poll lead and very nearly gifted a bunch of wildly antisemitic, anti-British, economic terrorists the keys to Downing Street.
Yet it is that blank canvas, that vacuum of ideology, that is now poised to lead Britain into ruin. Sweeping into office in the summer of 2016, scandalously unopposed and untested by the Conservative Party, Theresa May rode a wave of positivity from the public – and certainly party membership if not Westminster – about the outcome of the EU membership referendum.
Initially buoyed by this upbeat mood, she too struck the notes that voters wished to hear and appeared to be acting upon them: speeches such as that delivered at Lancaster House in January 2017 set out a bold, forward-looking future for Britain. Standing, trading, and engaging on the world stage rather than cowering in narrow regionalism. Adopting a mature, friendly tone with our erstwhile partners on the continent. Embracing emerging markets, democracies and cultures. And reforming our own industries for a more nimble, global, enterprising and profitable economy.
If only that were May’s own view rather than simply reflected from a wider mood, we mightn’t be in the mess we are today. It now seems abundantly clear that her blank canvas was painted over once more: now by a relentlessly anti-Brexit civil service, press and Parliament.
If there is one thing we do know about May, it is that her instinct is towards the hectoring, nannying authoritarianism and control that typified the post-war consensus, and which most members of the Conservative Party hoped had been washed from their ranks during the 1980s. It is this panic, this averseness to ambition and hope, that is now squarely at the fore, having been roundly triggered by the unswaying Europhile fanaticism and Brexit doom-mongering of those politicos by whom she is now surrounded. With no belief of her own, this dismal politician leading a dismal Parliament has been all too easily swayed to the fatalist and risk-averse.
All accounts of negotiations make this plain. Whilst David Davis – and to a lesser extent, his successor Dominic Raab – were working to forge a mutually respectful, progressive and positive future relationship between Britain and the ever-consolidating base of power upon the continent, Downing Street was actively undermining these attempts. In the eyes of May and those around her, Brexit is not an opportunity to make the most of, but a risk to be mitigated against, and ideally avoided at all costs.
The strategies enacted and demands made by the EU during the initial year of negotiations show plainly that they recognised the UK held all the cards. A nimbler economy; an enterprising people; the home of the world’s language; a hub for services, industries, and innovation. In short, the ability to reform and boom, creating success – on all fronts – such as has never been known. They set out explicitly to hobble these advantages. One can only begin to imagine the disbelieving delight that rippled from Brussels as the British Prime Minister swallowed their schemes whole: proving wholly unable and unwilling to stand up for her country’s interests.
For this reason, above any other, she now follows the Titanic-like course toward EU serfdom that is laid plain in her withdrawal agreement: a deal so bad it may well outrank the Treaty of Versailles in the annals of stomach-churning capitulation and, yes, treachery. A deal that restricts the British economy and allows a competitor effective veto over almost every facet of it; a deal that enshrines the superiority of EU courts over our own law-makers and judiciary; a deal that actively aims to cripple the UK’s potential for global trade; and all without recourse or mechanism to fully and properly withdraw without breaking international law. Doing so is now being widely discussed as a potential possibility, should this most abhorrent of deals be ratified.
And yet, and yet… all is not quite lost. Despite the Conservative Party’s spineless and fruitless attempts to be rid of this, the worst Prime Minister and worst party leader in all British history, something is still salvageable.
Sadly, time has long run out on the sensible deal that all but the most hard-nosed leave voter aspired to at the time of the referendum and in the months that immediately followed. But a ‘no deal’ Brexit is still technically achievable. Indeed, it is enshrined in law and is, at the time of writing, set to occur at 11pm GMT on 29th March 2019. There may be some short-term bumps, but Britons were made plainly aware of guaranteed-but-didn’t-happen catastrophies in the mere event of leave winning the referendum, never mind being enacted upon. Continuity remain bleat “no one voted to be poorer”. Nonsense! It may have been no-one’s express wish, but the remain campaign promised it was a certainty and the British people said “no, we’ll chance it: democracy is more important”. And all the evidence suggests that, with the correct policies, our post-Brexit economy will be stronger and more vibrant, particularly in the face of increasing turmoil and division on the continent.
Any tough times will not last. They are unlikely to even see out the summer. The UK is a huge market and supply chains will very quickly adapt. Many other preparations have already been made but go unreported in the mainstream press, from securing the rights of Brits living in the Costa del Sol to air travel and mobile phone roaming charges. As to the Northern Irish border with the Republic, and thus the EU; we have been consistently told that technological solutions to avoid a hard, infrastructure-laden border are impossible and incompatible. Yet it is exactly these 21st Century, technologically-based solutions that are set out in the withdrawal agreement and its associated political declaration as the EU’s own target for managing that very same border. Never has such a beating been administered with such an imaginary stick.
Brexit must be delivered, in full and on time. Then maybe – just maybe – Parliament will find some collective gumption and rid us of this turbulent Prime Minister.
Aaron Brown is a cultural historian and commentator, specialising in comedy. Follow him on twitter: @AaronMLB