Theresa May’s foolish gamble

One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is that the rights of minorities are respected. At the moment, the UK is not a mature democracy in that sense. The Brexit referendum vote was 52% for, 48% against: in raw numbers that’s 17,410,742 for and 16,141,241 against. But somehow the 48% became — like the Supreme Court judges who concluded that Article 50 could not be triggered without a vote in the (sovereign) parliament — “enemies of the people”. But what’s even more extraordinary is the way the 48% of us who voted for Remain have gone quiet.

Turnout on June 23, 2016 was 72.2% of a total electorate of 46,500,001, which is pretty good by British standards. But if you look at the raw numbers, what happened is that 37% of all the people eligible to vote favoured leaving the EU, while 34% opted to remain. Yet if one were to judge from the hysteria of the Brexiteers, it was as if 99.9% of the entire population were in favour of leaving the EU, and those who dissented were just a tiny band of ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’.

The numbers suggest that anyone who takes parliamentary sovereignty seriously — and after all that is what “taking back control” is supposed to be about — should be in favour of having a parliamentary vote on the exit terms when they are finally agreed. The outcome of that vote may well be to accept the terms and depart. But there has to be a vote.

Back to the strange passivity of the remainders, though. One of them was Theresa May. She was known to be a Remainer, even if a half-hearted one. But she seemed to be transfixed by the result after she became Prime Minister, and was perhaps frightened by the hysterical abuse visited upon the Supreme Court by the Daily Mail and the tabloid press. She may also have been oppressed — as her predecessor was — by the xenophobic, anti-EU cohort in her own party. (After all, the only reason Cameron called the Referendum in the first place was that he thought he would win it and that that would get the xenophobes off his back. This has to be the greatest miscalculation in recent British history.)

So May immediately went into her hard-faced “Brexit means Brexit” mode at the September Tory party conference and adopted the hectoring, threatening tone that alienated the central players in the remaining countries of the EU. Interestingly, though, in her big TV interview with Jeremy Paxman — who consistently taunted her with the accusation that she — still — doesn’t think Brexit is a good idea, she continually dodged the issue. Instead she repeated again and again that her concern was now to ensure “a good deal” for the UK.

This chimes with my colleague David Runciman’s hunch about her character. He concluded, in reviewing a new biography of her, that she is essentially a dutiful, unimaginative character who takes her marching orders from others and gets on with it. “Now that May is prime minister, he wrote, two things

“two things are starkly apparent. First, her approach to Brexit is simply a continuation of the same pattern. She inherited Brexit. She will deliver it, unlike the supposed big thinkers – including Gove – who conjured it up in the first place. Unnervingly, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that her embrace of a hard Brexit, prioritising the control of immigration over membership of the single market, is her way of finally completing the task. As [her biographer] Prince puts it, ‘The challenge of controlling immigration [as home secretary] would become her most intractable problem and, by her own standard, the one she failed to overcome. In hindsight, the target she was set was probably always unachievable. Long after others had given up, she continued to strive to meet it. As prime minister, she still does.’ ‘I don’t know whose idea the original promise was,’ Michael Howard says of the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, ‘but I rather doubt it was hers. Obviously we couldn’t get down to that level without leaving the EU. She did get the non-EU numbers down, not nearly far enough, but … she got them moving in the right direction. But we could never get them down to the tens of thousands while we stayed in the EU’.”

May’s lacklustre, frightened performance in the election campaign suggests that she continues in the same rut. The imaginative thing to have done would be to have wooed the 48% who voted for Remain; but this she resolutely declined to do. So she has backed a large chunk of the electorate into a corner. She has reminded them that the Tories are still “the nasty party” (her phrase from the post-1997 era. Remainers are therefore faced with two alternatives. They can vote for the Lib Dems, who look like they are heading for electoral disaster; or — holding their noses — they can vote for Labour, on the grounds that a Brexit negotiated by Corbyn & Co might be a bit softer.

What will probably happen then is that May will win with a majority not much bigger than the 17 seats she currently has. In which case she will be at the mercy of the Europhobic nutters in her own party, and be as tormented by them as John Major was during the Maastricht negotiations in 1992. It couldn’t happen to a nastier woman.

But back to the strange passivity of the 48%. In an interesting blog post, Anatole Kaletsky contrasts it with the atmosphere in the post-Trump US. Over there, he writes,

“the immediate response to policies that were logically incoherent, economically dishonest, and diplomatically impossible to implement was an upsurge of opposition and debate. The Democrats showed unprecedented unity in Congress, television comedians provided even more effective opposition, millions of progressive voters took to the streets, media outlets launched relentless investigations, and the American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million within 24 hours of the administration’s attempt to bar Muslims from entering the country.

Most important, US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests. As a top Senate staffer told the Milken conference, Walmart and other retailers “were extremely effective at educating our members” about the political costs of any new taxes on US imports. This removed Trump’s main protectionist threat and killed his hopes of financing big tax cuts with revenues from a “border adjustment” tax.

But, over here…

“Leaving the EU represents a much greater political and economic upheaval than anything proposed by the Trump administration, yet Brexit has become an immovable dogma, immune to challenge or questioning of any kind. In contrast to the aggressive business lobbying against Trump’s election promises, no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU. Worse still, the taboo against questioning Brexit has not been justified by appeals to reason, economics, or national interest. Instead the “will of the people” has been invoked. This chilling phrase, along with its even more sinister counterpart, “enemies of the people,” has become a rhetorical staple in the US as well as Britain. But there is a crucial difference: In the US, such proto-fascist language is heard on the extremist fringes; in Britain, even mainstream media and parliamentary debates routinely refer to opponents of Brexit as anti-democratic schemers and unpatriotic saboteurs.”

It may have been, of course, that May’s strategy in calling the election that she swore initially was unnecessary and possibly destabilising, was to seek a landslide victory that would give her a big enough majority to see off the crazies in the Tory party. If that indeed was what she was up to, it’s beginning to look like a losing bet. We’ll know for sure next Friday.