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2 May 2017

Why has strong and stable Theresa May left Brexit to the three stooges?

Of the Brexit ministers, one will steer us towards disaster, one will try to sell the ship, and a third who you can never quite be sure wasn’t on the iceberg’s side in the first place.

By Jonn Elledge

Sometimes, logic can lead us astray. It seems clear that those tasked with delivering Brexit should be those who supported the ludicrous idea in the first place: partly to prevent the emerging stab-in-the-back narrative, but mostly on the venerable philosophical principle of “You broke it, you bought it”. 

This plan, though, has the slight downside that almost everyone who actually understood international trade backed Remain – not out of love for Brussels, but out of simple recognition that the alternative would be agony. The result is that the ministers now delivering Brexit are, by definition, those who haven’t the faintest clue about the magnitude of the task before them.

Consider the big three. Liam Fox has already been thrown out of government once, after blurring the line between personal and professional relationships so severely that the head of the civil service described his judgement as a “security risk”. This, in a less shameless age, would have barred him from high office for ever.

Instead he’s now on tour as international trade secretary, on the grounds, one assumes, that his presence will advertise quite how many principles Britain is willing to flog off in order to sign those trade deals. In between times he’s finding time to motivate British business by calling it fat and lazy, and we can all make our own jokes about that.

The never knowingly under-smugged David Davis does at least have some direct experience of the EU, having been Europe minister from 1994 to 1997. This did not stop him from tweeting, shortly before the referendum, that the priority for a post Brexit-Britain would be to a “UK-German deal”, a statement which remarkably managed to contain more misunderstandings than characters.

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Since vexingly being appointed Brexit minister, he’s reported to have cut short meetings with any trade group that expresses concern that life outside the single market might not be all sunlit uplands, and cheerfully told a select committee that his department has made no effort to assess what leaving without a deal would do to British economy. Not content to not know what he’s doing, Davis is actively going to heroic lengths to stay that way.

And then there’s the ambition-lined principle-vacuum currently serving as Britain’s foreign secretary. Worrying enough that Boris Johnson’s decision to back Leave seemingly had less to do with either Britain or Brussels than it did with his leadership ambitions. But what really concerns me is that he came to this conclusion after writing two columns – one for Brexit, one for Brussels – and deciding which argument he found more convincing. Like so many Romans, Boris seems to have mistaken good rhetoric for good government, the world for his cursus honorum. Now he’s charged with formulating Britain’s position regarding Syria, perhaps he’ll discover quite how hard it actually is to govern in 700 word bursts.

We are meant to be reassured, as these men lead us ever closer to the precipice, that at least the prime minister can be relied upon. Unlike her underlings, Theresa May is perceived as solid, dependable, a safe pair of hands. This perception somehow persists, even as she launches public attacks on confectionery firms while declining to dress down party grandees who fancy a spot of war with Spain.

Her election slogan “strong and stable” irritates in part because she repeats it so often that it suggests she’s forgotten the entire rest of the English language – but mostly it’s infuriating because it’s so clearly complete and total nonsense. It was May, after all, who left the most complex diplomatic negotiations that the country has seen in decades in the hands of men like Davis, Fox and Johnson: one who’ll steer us towards disaster, one who’ll try to sell the ship, and a third who you can never quite be sure wasn’t on the iceberg’s side in the first place. Gordon Brown once promised a government of all the talents; Theresa May has given us a government of none of them.

The “strong and stable” message will work, in so far as it’ll likely help her win her majority – but it’s not clear how long it’ll work for. Promising strength and stability may win over swing voters – but when she delivers neither, the buck will stop with her.

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