Alex Massie

Why didn’t Theresa May campaign for Brexit?

Why didn't Theresa May campaign for Brexit?
Text settings

According to Theresa May, interviewed by Tim Shipman in today's Sunday Times, Brexit will make the United Kingdom 'a sovereign and independent nationonce again.

I know we are all supposed to be impressed by our new Prime Minister and much enthused by her Matron Gragrind approach to politics that is, again, such a refreshing change from the soft-furnished Call me Dave years but, really, can we pause for a moment to note that this is twaddle. Because if it were true - and if it were true that Mrs May believes this - then we are asked to believe that Britain was not, before its blessed liberation in June, a sovereign or independent nation. And if she really believed that, we might pause to ask why she did not campaign for Brexit? Moreover, if this were actually the case we might also ask why 48 percent of the voting public willingly endorsed Britain's Brussels captivity, accepting the price of bondage as being one well worth paying.

Of course we understand, now that Brexit means Brexit, Mrs May must pander to what Ken Clarke aptly labels the headbanging wing of the Tory party but there's no need, even while doing so, to insult everyone else's intelligence.

Rhetoric matters, too. Not least because, as increasingly seems evident, the Conservative party is leading us to the hardest of hard Brexits. A Kipperish Brexit, in fact, of the sort that, had it been presented to the British people as the plan back in June, would most probably have failed to win the day. I base that view on the very good fact that if this was the kind of Brexit people might have voted for it would have been the kind of Brexit promised by the Leave campaign. It wasn't.

So be it. In the meantime, we must endure endless crowing from the Brexiteers who greet every piece of encouraging economic data as fresh evidence there's no downside at all to leaving the EU. It may be that, in time, the worriers and carpers and sceptics are confounded by events (and it would be a good thing, for all of us, if that proves the case) but it's evidently much too early to say so and no amount of asinine cheerleading can disguise the fact that the economic impact of leaving the EU will not be felt until such point as, you know, the United Kingdom has actually left the EU.

As I say, let us hope the optimists are right. But there is something grimly ironic about being told that the single market - the only thing Britain has ever really liked and valued about the EU - is now, despite what you thought, something that's of only trivial importance. Something, even, that holds Britain back.

But then, when you listen to the Brexit buccaneers, you are struck by their insistence that everything will be simple. And easy. And tickety-boo. Britain will get everything it wants without sacrificing anything in return. It's like discovering we have, for some reason, handed control of the government to a collection of nine-year-old boys.

What alternative conclusion can be drawn from the fact we now enjoy a Foreign Secretary who says, and I am not making this up, 'We are pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto'? It would be funny if it were actually funny. According to Boris Johnson, however, 'Our policy is having our cake and eating it'. Well that was Billy Bunter's policy too but I have a hunch international politics is a smidgen more complicated than that.

Not that Mr Johnson is alone. A paper bearing the imprimatur of Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Patterson - the Talleyrand and Metternich de nos jours - blithely declares Britain should:

1. Offer talks on trade and tariffs if they wish to change anything, saying we are happy to offer them no change to current arrangements.

2. In other words, we stay in the Single Market as now, without freedom of movement and the contributions.

3. The advantage we have on trading is that we are happy with the status quo, so they are the ones with a problem if they wish to change it.

4. This reverses the presumption of many commentators that the UK needs to negotiate with the rest of the EU and is the supplicant.

This, titter ye not, is labelled an Action Plan for Brexit. It is so delusional it could have been written by Scottish Nationalists in 2014. In fact this kind of thing was churned out by the nationalists two years ago when they were busy assuring everyone that unravelling the United Kingdom would be a piece of cake (worth having and worth eating) and that anyone who suggested there might be some difficulties was just scaremongering and talking Scotland down. The singers change but the tune remains the same.

What's more, cock-eyed fantasists assured us that far from being under the cosh in those negotiations the provisional government of an independent Scotland would actually have the upper hand. The rump UK needed Scotland more than Scotland needed happy and mutually-beneficial arrangements with the rump UK. In any case, Scotland would get everything it wanted without having to concede anything at all.

As then, so now. The arguments - and the delusions - remain the same; it's just the protagonists who have changed. As then, so now. These charlatans - I use the technical term - forget that both parties to a negotiation have interests and that politics, like life, does not always proceed on the basis of rational self-interest.

In any case, it is not obviously in the EU's interest, let alone that of any of its constituent nations, to give Britain everything it wants. Indeed the reverse is likely to be true, just as it was likely to be true of any negotiations between a putatively independent Scotland and what remained of the UK. This remains so even if you concede - as I do - that unravelling the UK might be an even more complex business than disentangling the UK from the EU.

Perhaps all will be for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. Let us hope so. It is, for sure, evident that Brexit affords Britain some opportunities and some of these are likely to be welcome ones, but it is infantile to suppose these will not be countered, or even matched, by some difficulties and that many of these difficulties are likely to be significant. Other people want cake too.

But let us enjoy the spectacle - I think that's the right word - of a government preaching the virtues of free trade and exhorting fat and lazy British businesses to export more while at the same time pursuing a policy that seems increasingly likely to erect tariffs between Britain and its largest trading partner. Perhaps opportunities elsewhere will more than offset those obstacles. Let us hope that proves the case but let's at least acknowledge there are trade-offs here.

Because the alternative, depressing as it may be, is a government of prep school fantasists and it would be disagreeable to think that's the kind of government we presently enjoy. Instead we have a Foreign Secretary crooning 'Don’t you worry about a thing cos every little thing is gonna be all right.' Well, OK then.

Or, to adapt Mencken, Brexit is the theory the government knows what it is doing and the common people deserve to get it good and hard.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.