Steve Richards: Theresa is starting to look a bit like Tony before Iraq
The PM’s frenzied behaviour this week is reminiscent of Blair’s desperate contortions around the Iraq invasion.
Theresa May is trapped by the Brexit course she chose to navigate from the beginning. Why did her government choose not to conduct formal impact assessments on different sectors in the UK economy? Did they forget or neglect to do so, an excuse that even Basil Fawlty would not seek to get away with? Why is May struggling to get through to the next phase of the talks when the current obstacles are mere anthills compared with the mountain that awaits her?
The answer to all the questions is the same. May ruled out continued membership of the single market and customs union while pledging to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court as soon as she crossed the threshold into Number Ten. In such constrained circumstances a formal independent assessment showing downsides to leaving the Customs’ Union is not very helpful. The government did not forget to commission data driven reviews. It chose not to do so, opting instead, it seems, for more haphazard reviews from which conclusions could not be so easily discerned. Why instigate reviews that might produce unhelpful evidence?
May lacks the depth, guile and experience to guide the UK through a course chosen with speedy naivety. In her defence she assumed David Cameron would win the referendum in 2016 and had given little deep thought to Brexit issues before taking over as prime minister. But her character is unsuited even if she had been more prepared. She survived triumphantly in the Home Office as a dogged minister who chose to pursue her objectives without much scrutiny or publicity. Perhaps that is why she laughably hoped to conduct the Brexit talks without a running commentary. Currently we are getting a commentary every minute of the day.
In relation to May’s self- imposed entrapment there are parallels with Tony Blair and Iraq, the last calamitous UK foreign policy that now undermines Blair’s attempts to articulate clear sighted and forensic opposition to Brexit. May’s increasingly frenzied bid to find a form of words on the Irish question that will keep all sides on board for a bit longer is similar to Blair’s desperate contortions to secure UN resolutions in advance of Iraq. He got a resolution where the wording was so fuzzy that all relevant countries could sign up to it but failed to get a second explicitly supporting military intervention. Everyone at the UN knew there was no hope of such a resolution but Blair continued in his pursuit. Like May now, Blair also chose not to reflect on unhelpful evidence in advance of the denouement.
But while the Brexit darkness descends on May, it is lifted a little elsewhere. A majority in the Commons starts to take shape against her chosen path. This is a big difference with the politics of Iraq. Blair knew he would always secure a Commons’ majority as most Conservative MPs were more hung ho about the war than him, part of his calculation as he became trapped. In relation to Brexit the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, stated on Monday that the Irish question could be solved by regulatory alignment across the UK, implying support for continued membership of the single market and customs’ union. There are thirteen Conservative MPs from Scotland in the Commons over which she holds considerable sway.
In a highly significant move, Labour’s Keir Starmer called for the single market and customs’ union to be put “on the table” as part of the negotiation. That phrase “on the table” is worthy of Harold Wilson in the 1970s as he kept his divided party in the EU and won a referendum by moving in a clear direction but creating some wriggle room at each junction. Slowly Labour is moving towards support for an arrangement similar to Norway’s. To revive Wilson’s favourite phrase Starmer keeps all options open but soon it will be in the leadership’s interests that this is indeed its clearly favoured option. They will be joined by SNP MPs, Liberal Democrats and presumably by some pro European Tory MPs even if their defiance risks a wider political explosion.
When prime ministers are trapped they start to behave out of character. The pragmatic Blair was never a crusading evangelist about Iraq until he had no choice but to be. The assiduously hard working May is not the type to head towards a pivotal summit with the clock ticking, still in frantic talks to secure agreement. She is out of character because she has to be.
In a hung parliament the Labour leadership, with other parties, has an opportunity to remove all political space for the cornered prime minister. For the Labour leadership self -interested expediency and the interests of the UK propel it towards a resolution of its own internal agonies.
The politics of Europe force nearly all UK leaders to behave out of character. In Jeremy Corbyn’s case he could be the leader that keeps the UK in the single market and customs’ union, and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. That has not been top of his agenda as a political figure in recent decades. It will be soon.
Steve Richards presents his one man show Rock N Roll Politics at Kings Place on Wednesday December 14th.
Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images