STUART MILLSON says the much-maligned Theresa had Brexit about right
The ousting of Boris Johnson’s close political adviser, Dominic Cummings – architect of the Vote Leave victory in 2016, and (at the time of writing) the continued impasse over a final Brexit deal, have brought our relations with the EU into sharp focus once again.
Since the referendum, a moment in our history which confirmed an end to one of the most significant parts of the post-war consensus – that Britain should root itself within a European sphere of influence – the defeated pro-Remain side in Britain has tried, time and again, to reverse, or dilute, the result. Their efforts reached a zenith during the days of Theresa May’s premiership: her Government’s small majority in the House of Commons (reinforced by Unionist votes, which in the end dematerialised) making it impossible to bring EU exit legislation successfully through its many stages.
Unable to enact the will of the people as expressed in the Vote Leave result, Mrs May’s position became untenable – the only way forward for Brexit being a bonfire of the vanities: a General Election which would sweep away the entrenched Remainish majority in the Commons – removing all those MPs who famously put their own eloquence and ideology before Brexit. And it should not be forgotten that one of those MPs, in those uneasy days, was none other than Boris Johnson: a figure who could be counted upon to vote against his Prime Minister and party. As one backbencher smirkingly remarked, it was indeed strange to see the Brexit purists marching through the same Division lobbies as the SNP and the second-referendum brigade, leaving Mrs. May with just the tatters of her policy.
Yet the former Prime Minister – whose instinct was always to strike a compromise – did set out with the highest hopes for Brexit – and a final settlement which whilst not, perhaps, embodying everything for which we Brexiteers had hoped, nonetheless set our country on a course of independence – but sustaining immediate economic contacts with the bloc to which we formerly belonged as a political member. Put very simply, Mrs. May’s idea was that United Kingdom should leave the political institutions of the European Union (institutions which no longer serve any European citizen) but remain within, or alongside, all the practical economic arrangements, which allow life to continue as normal: lorries and coaches driving on and off ferries or Eurotunnel services; goods and services freely flowing – and the English middle class still able to visit and settle in Normandy at the drop of a three-cornered hat. But more than that, Mrs. May – the pragmatist, the careful Whitehall moderator – saw her deal in more than just ‘foreign policy’ terms. For this Prime Minister, an heir to Chamberlainite ideals of a united, social-democratic, communitarian Tory Britain, her Brexit deal was a visionary attempt to honour the entire result of the referendum, in a fusion of moderate-Leave and moderate-Remain ideals. The result: social cohesion, acceptance, domestic harmony.
She reasoned as follows: the majority of Remain voters, though obviously believing that we should stay within the Euro-club, were by no means part of the much-mocked ‘Remainiac’ rump, which seemed – each day, to parade itself across the news bulletins, with Euro-banner demonstrations outside Parliament and yet more legal and parliamentary challenges to the Government’s legislation. (Readers will recall international businesswoman, Gina Miller and her offshore backers’ resolve to stop ministerial invocation of Article 50 – the EU treaty’s leaving mechanism – in the Supreme Court.)
Furthermore, went the thinking, that most ‘Remain’ supporters also tended to take the view that, (a) Britain had been a member of the European project for over 40 years, and (b) that much of our trade is conducted with our continental partners, so why ‘rock the boat’ – why unravel complicated arrangements beneficial to industries and workers, just for the sake of a political point? Sharing also, perhaps, the tabloids’ and Telegraph suspicion, or dislike of the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ (rather than the European Community itself), the middle-of-the-road Remainers, nevertheless constituted a large segment of the British electorate – an electoral element Mrs May did not wish to alienate. If the May Government could appeal to this part of middle-England, counting on their sense of fair play to respect the majority Brexit vote, then the extreme and influential pro-EU faction could be isolated – portrayed as anti-democrats whose instincts were simply unreasonable, even hostile to the nation-state, yet adulatory of foreign banners and bureaucrats.
With a consensus achieved, the country could then begin to repair the divisions which flared up and began to cast a gloomy atmosphere over Britain in the months following the referendum: Brexit would be generous and consensual – and pro-Europeans would still have some of the cultural links they craved. But the ideal – first propounded by Mrs May in her famous Chatham House speech, setting out the aim of a sovereign Britain linked to many international bodies – was not to be. With a Corbynite Labour Party (excited about another election) scenting fear – and blood – from its Tory opponents; and with a ‘Brexit party’ at work on the Tory backbenches, tripping up the Government at every opportunity, the consensus Prime Minister could no longer continue her mission.
As we survey the Brexit landscape at the end of our transition year to full independence, we might ponder the notion that Mrs. May did, in fact, get it right: with a path that would have steered us away from over-dependence upon either the United States or Europe – a sensible insurance policy, given the change of administration now underway in Washington and a less sympathetic view of Brexit from the new President-Elect. And with Britain now demoralised through Covid, fragmenting at the edges, too, as devolved UK assemblies chart their own path through the crisis, Mrs. May’s hope for a re-uniting of people of goodwill – non-ideological Brexiteers and realistic Remainers – could have given us the cohesion required to take us on the next step of our national journey.
STUART MILLSON is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. After more than two decades living in a Kent village, he crossed the River Severn and the Black Mountains, and now writes from West Wales.