It is becoming clearer by the day that Theresa May is leading the country towards a Brexit that she does not truly believe is in the national interest, even though she sees it as her duty to implement it. This is an extraordinary position for a prime minister to be in, psychologically as well as politically.
There is no precedent for a leader consciously embarking on a course that they know will make their people poorer and less safe. No wonder Mrs May seems so tortured by her role in No 10. She is like one of the silhouettes of First World War soldiers that are being installed around the country: There But Not There, a shadow leader who commemorates past battles without having any substance herself.
Asked last week whether she thought that leaving the EU would be worth it in the end, Mrs May could not in all honesty say “yes”. Instead, her reply was that “the British people voted for Brexit and I think it’s incumbent on their politicians to deliver on the decision that we asked them to take”. It was the answer to a completely different question but the uneasy smile betrayed her real feelings.
The prime minister has now admitted that the country will be worse off after Brexit and the government’s own forecasts predict that it is Leave voters in the “left behind” former industrial heartlands of the northeast who will suffer most. Challenged in the House of Commons yesterday over David Davis’s claim that Britain would retain the “exact same benefits” of the single market and the customs union after Brexit, she conceded that things would in fact be different and more difficult. In her Mansion House speech last week, she said that access to EU markets would inevitably be reduced. Her negotiating position is now based on limiting the damage, meaning that “taking back control” over our laws, money and borders is rapidly being exposed as a phoney display of assertiveness.
Under Mrs May’s plan, many UK rules and regulations will “remain substantially similar” to those in the EU because the economic or social costs of divergence would be too high. The idea is that we would be choosing to stay aligned, but sovereignty could in fact be reduced because parliament will have no say over future changes to the legal system it will shadow. Instead of throwing off the shackles of Brussels, the prime minister is promising to make “binding commitments” to European state aid and competition rules. Britain will continue to pay into EU funds for associate membership of some agencies, and the legal system will remain linked to the European Court of Justice. Even the immigration system will be a matter for negotiation. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s plans for tariffs on steel and aluminium imports are further evidence that new trade deals will be so much more complicated than the Brexiteers promised.
Trapped between different versions of what is the “right” thing to do — uphold the referendum result and keep her fractious party together or protect the economy and risk splitting the Tories for ever — the morally upright vicar’s daughter cannot resolve her dilemma.
The prime minister wants a Schrödinger’s Brexit: a departure that is, like the cat in the thought experiment, simultaneously dead and alive. But the moment that the box is opened by Brussels its true state will be revealed. The conundrum over the Northern Ireland border is a microcosm of the wider tensions that will be exposed as soon as the political fudge has to be turned into a detailed legal text.
It is good that the swagger of the “citizens of nowhere” speech and the buccaneering bravura of the Brexiteers have been tamed but Mrs May has still given no sense of how the country will be different in ten years’ time as a result of leaving the EU.
The uneasy truce on the Tory benches cannot last. For the hard Brexiteers, the close alignment suggested by the prime minister surely risks turning Britain into a “vassal state” of the EU. Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith challenged Mrs May to insist that “cake exists to be eaten and cherries exist to be picked”, a sign that compromise is not an option on this wing of the party.
For the Remainers the question must be: why are we leaving at all? One Tory MP who voted Remain says Mrs May is “getting to the point of being half pregnant on Brexit. I think the whole thing is daft but if there are any sunny uplands we’re not going to get to them by being so closely aligned to the EU.”
The intervention of Sir John Major and Tony Blair was significant because it highlighted the importance of putting national interest over party loyalty. These former prime ministers set aside their tribal differences in a father-of-the-nation attempt to save the country from what they see as an impending disaster.
Sir John, whose own premiership was destroyed by Tory rows over Europe, spoke for several current ministers when he said that although the “will of the people” must not be ignored, “parliament has a duty also to consider the wellbeing of the people”. One senior Conservative says: “Probably 80 per cent of Tory MPs, and the majority of ministers, don’t think Brexit is in the national interest but they feel gagged by the referendum.”
Many prime ministers have made mistakes: Eden lied about the Suez crisis, Blair waged a misguided war in Iraq, Thatcher misjudged the public mood over the poll tax. But none has pursued a policy of such magnitude as Brexit against their own better judgment because they feel a political obligation to enact it. It is incredible that the government can be stuck on a track that so many of its most senior figures (including the chancellor and the home secretary) worry is going to do great damage to the country they have a legal duty to protect.
A growing number of MPs and peers, including ministers, would now like to see an extension of the Article 50 process, so that the UK does not actually leave the EU until the end of the transition period, rather than in March next year. This would give parliament the chance of a genuinely meaningful vote on the terms of Brexit rather than just on broad principles. It would need EU approval but that could be granted if the request were seen as more than a delaying tactic. There could then also be a referendum on the final deal.
Why should the people not have the last word on such a momentous change, if even the prime minister is not sure that her own policy is in the national interest?
Rachel Sylvester, journalist.