And I'm not making this up...

Instead of pandering to tabloid mythology why can't May, Cameron and co just be honest?

Sometimes I like to think of a world in which everything that's said at the Conservative Party conference is true. Imagine that world, for a moment. It's a world where rich people are nice, and businesses are trying their hardest to make the world a better place but are constantly thwarted by pesky red tape.

It's a world where the poor are grasping and bad, and people who aren't doing very well have ended up there by not trying hard enough and not getting on their bikes.

It's also a world where political correctness has gone mad. But you can't even say mad nowadays, you have to say "mindfully challenged" because otherwise the Brussels bureaucrats, and I'm not making this up, won't be able to deport racists back to where they came from because of their so-called human rights, and I saw someone had to wear safety goggles to open a packet of Murray Mints, it was in the papers and everything.

No, I'm getting confused. That was just a silly caricature of things that might be said at the Conservative Party conference; it wasn't what was actually said. However, even though that isn't quite accurate, it's close enough, isn't it? I mean, who cares what actually happened, when you can just tell a story that's got some kind of basis in fact, even if it's not exactly what happened?

When challenged about it, you can get your mates in the press to tell their readers that you're right; and it's not as if anyone on your side cares or not whether you're telling them the truth, as long as it neatly chimes in with their prejudices and expectations.

Well, that's not entirely true either, though. Because not all Tories roared with approval when Theresa May told her since-discredited shaggy moggy tale about a cat that kept someone in the country who shouldn't have been in the country, and how that showed why the Human Rights Act should be consigned Mary Bale-style to the wheelie bin.

Kenneth Clarke, the only Tory it's all right to be fond of if you're a leftie (although if we were allowed dead ones, I'd put Kenny Everett in there) thought it cheapened the debate to mention something that wasn't fundamentally accurate.

Later that same conference, David Cameron came up with a tale about health and safety having literally gone mad when a school tried to order highlighter pens, concocting a daft image of kids having to put on chemical protection suits and stand behind a blast shield just to use them. Was that true? It might have been, I suppose, but it's this kind of anecdotal justification for important policy -- the scrapping of the human rights act here, the relaxation of health and safety regulation there -- that cheapens our political life.

This kind of pandering to tabloid mythology is reminiscent of the black man Cameron met before the election campaign in 2010 who had apparently told him what he wanted to hear about immigration. But we only ever hear anecdotes from people he's spoken to that back him up; he doesn't talk much about the doctor he met, who told him to sod off out of his hospital, does he?

Who knows. Maybe there is a school somewhere that keeps highlighter pens in a safe, because they're so scared of the H&S brigade. Maybe there's a rush of illegal immigrants heading down the pet shop in the belief that it'll prevent their rightful deportation. Maybe some of these anecdotes are true, or grounded in truth. But even if they are, is that justification enough to change things? How about looking beyond the anecdotes, and beyond the farcical exceptions to the rule, and wondering why these bits of legislation are around in the first place?

Why not just be honest? If you don't like the Human Rights Act because you think it gives people too many human rights, then say so. Don't say it's stopping judges from deporting people because they've got cats when it hasn't stopped judges deporting people because they've got cats; that makes you seem childish and the reasons for your lawmaking flimsy.

If you don't like health and safety legislation because it means businesses are annoyed at having to spend money on safeguarding their employees -- and let's face it, if a few manual workers get horribly mutilated or killed, they weren't going to vote Tory anyway -- then don't be shy. Why use these daft anecdotes to get the point across?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.