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4 July 2018

She’s awkward, humbled, bruised: but May might have outplayed the hard Brexiteers

The Prime Minister may yet survive Brexit and have another crack at the electorate in 2022.

By Stephen Bush

The loss of her parliamentary majority left Theresa May traumatised but essentially unchanged. Before the general election, May ran Downing Street in the same way she ran the Home Office: the flow of information was tightly restricted to a close-knit inner circle and so was decision-making. Interactions with civil servants by May’s all-powerful chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, often called to mind Thomas Hobbes’s description of human life – nasty, brutish and short.

In the first year of her premiership, May’s intolerance of dissent extended towards the cabinet. During the meeting in which she informed her ministers of her plans for an early election, everyone present agreed with her reasoning, with one exception. Michael Fallon, then defence secretary, warned that snap elections were unpredictable. He received a dressing-down from Hill and Timothy afterwards.

As it turned out, Fallon was right; and the unexpected election result means the Prime Minister now at least gives the appearance of consulting her ministers and civil servants. In the dark days of June last year, out went her all-powerful chiefs and in came Gavin Barwell, who is seen as affable even by his enemies. But all that really changed was that the iron fist saw fit to slip on a velvet glove. May’s old approach, of withholding information and concentrating decisions to an inner circle, has not changed – she just makes a greater show of hiding it.

Nowhere is the new routine more apparent than in the cabinet’s Brexit strategy and negotiation sub-committee – or “S&N” as it is generally called in Westminster and on Whitehall. The nominal brief of S&N, whose membership includes all of the cabinet’s heavyweights, is to set the terms of the Brexit talks and to meet at least twice a week. In reality, S&N handles neither strategy nor negotiation and meets intermittently. Its members have little input into its agenda and frequently see proposals at the last possible minute. May no longer has the authority to command silence but she can still use Downing Street’s institutional machinery to reduce opportunities for ministers to dissent.

The Prime Minister is no more forthcoming with European leaders than with her warring cabinet. It is a regular source of frustration in Europe that she offers the same bland soundbites about Brexit in private as she does in public. She also has neither the inclination nor the ability to sell a narrative to journalists, which is one reason why the press tends to treat the Prime Minister with disdain. This Sphinx-like inscrutability makes it difficult to judge whether there is any method in the apparent madness of the government’s Brexit trajectory.

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The case for it being a blunder is easy to make. There are only four months to go until October – the point at which the United Kingdom must reach an accord with the European Union, giving time for any deal to be ratified by the European Parliament and by member states, as well as the Westminster parliament. Yet the Conservative Party is more divided than ever, and the cabinet is arguing over different variations of undeliverable Brexit. None of the options under discussion in S&N meets the government’s own red lines on the Irish border, for example, let alone the demands of our negotiating partner, the EU27.

However, that is not the full picture. Since triggering Article 50, May’s divided party has gradually moved towards a position that acknowledges the reality of negotiating with a much larger partner (which the EU is) and the need to safeguard both the British economy and the status quo in Northern Ireland.

Quietly, her own Brexit ultras have lost much of their leverage. Although the papers are still full of “crunch meetings” and “crisis talks” between parts of the Tory party, the fact remains that on 15 December 2017, May signed up to an accord with the EU that guaranteed there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland. The only way to achieve that aim is for the United Kingdom to remain in close regulatory and customs alignment with the rest of the EU in perpetuity. In other words, a “soft Brexit”.

That accord was the most important development in the whole of the Brexit talks and May managed it without the Conservative Party imploding or replacing her. Conservative Brexiteers now have few good options: they cannot, on their own, muster the numbers to remove her from office. The only way to get what they refer to as a “clean” Brexit – ie one in which the UK frees itself from the regulatory embrace of the EU – is to leave without a deal. That would mean an economic and political crisis, the strong chance of a Labour government with a large majority, and quite possibly no Brexit at all.

Perhaps May – who has refused on several occasions to recant her previous support for a Remain vote – is doing a better job of playing politics than her maladroit conduct of the election campaign and uncertain demeanour would lead onlookers to expect. She may yet survive Brexit and have another crack at the electorate in 2022. She has certainly managed to avoid promoting anyone who might replace her: only Sajid Javid, whose promotion was forced on her by Amber Rudd’s implosion, doesn’t have enough bitter enemies to handicap his ambition from the start.

This bruised but unrepentant Prime Minister could yet secure a rematch with Jeremy Corbyn at the next election. She would again face requests for television debates, more awkward interviews, more attempts to reconcile austerity economics with increasing demands for public services to be better funded, and more criticism for relying too heavily on a close-knit circle of advisers. Then, and only then, will we see how much she has really changed.

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This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit