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We Must All Echo Theresa May's Sense Of Duty And Public Service To Get Brexit Right

19/07/2017 07:43 | Updated 19 July 2017
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

I have a thing about bad behaviour in public places. Yesterday, whist on the underground, I told a young chap after he'd adjusted his trousers so more of his underpants were visible, that it would be better for all of us if he pulled them back up. That shocked him.

We have become too tolerant of bad behaviour from people who should know better, in my view. So I'm glad the Prime Minister decided to tackle what's been going on behind her back. Not for her sake, but for everyone else's.

It's safe to say that Theresa May will not be remembered as a brilliant politician, but what she has going for her is a great sense of duty and public service. And don't knock it as some consolation prize. Right now, it's what the country needs.

The last 12 months in politics has been about 'outsiders'. From Trump and Sanders in the US, Macron and Le Pen in France, to Jeremy Corbyn here, 'outsiders' have been winning and attracting support. Mrs May has never been an 'outsider', but early on in the minds of voters, she was definitely not a "business as usual politician". And they considered that a very good thing.

Her handling of Brexit up to the time of triggering Article 50, together with her empathetic speech on arrival at Number 10, made her seem like a breath of fresh air. Through her actions she displayed the kind of characteristics voters now only associate with 'outsiders': sincerity and selflessness.

Now of course, those of us who are already members of a political tribe or political commentators might question whether any of the politicians listed above are actually sincere and selfless. But in this context, what we think doesn't matter. Floating voters are drawn to 'outsiders' because in their view, and unlike traditional politicians, they share the same understanding of what's right and are prepared to stand up for it and back everyone else who does to. Successful outsiders are able to demonstrate sincerely that they are not 'in it' for themselves.

It's a sad indictment on other politicians but - fairly or unfairly - that's what makes these non-politicians seem different and fresh. And, it's what earns them the right to speak and be heard and why they enjoy their supporters' loyalty.

To a lot of people's huge disappointment during the election campaign, Mrs May stopped being a 'breath of fresh air' and became another politician, and not a very good one when she made a u-turn but then claimed it wasn't a u-turn. That's when some of her support turned to Jeremy Corbyn, the only 'outsider' in the race.

We all know what happened next. This Hung Parliament means the country now feels even more unstable. And it's made all the more worse because the Brexit negotiations are underway and the clock is ticking.

The only good news is that Mrs May has decided to ditch any pretence of remaining a politician for the long-term and instead re-found her inner public servant and sense of duty when the country needs it most. The bad news is, at a time when the nation needs all its politicians to do the same, she seems to be on her own.

The Cabinet plotters and their supporters seem to think all this public service stuff is admirable in others, but not more important than self-serving clever politics. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are allowing hubris to jeopardise his status as a non-politician and laughing at the Prime Minister's invitation to help. And Tony Blair and others who voice legitimate concerns about getting Brexit right are so discombobulated by recent results they've decided what's needed now is to insist they were right all along and to educated the voters on why they are wrong.

What's so frustrating is that all of these people and the groups they represent would be in a much stronger position to achieve their aims if they got together with the Prime Minister in the national and public interest for the next couple of years to deliver Brexit. More worrying is what risks happening if they continue behaving as they are: more instability and disruption whenever voters get the chance to go to the polls.

If we stopped and thought about it for the shortest of times, it would be obvious. Why should we expect others to change their pattern of behaviour which is designed to shock us into action, if we haven't changed ours?

It's hard to say all this without sounding like some kind of Prefect or Pollyanna, but last summer was the moment when voters took back control for themselves, not for us, and made a decision. Yes, 48% didn't vote for it - but I'd happily bet that all the Remainers who work hard, try to do the right thing, but don't feel supported by the rest of us more prosperous than them, would still like us to change our ways so they feel more sure we're 'in it' for them. For many Leavers, Brexit isn't about Europe but a way of showing their frustration at being misunderstood, not taken seriously, and having little opportunity to contribute and succeed in a world so distant from their own. Leaving the European Union is a means to change, not an end in itself.

The only way any political party will succeed in the future will be by respecting that and working with their opponents to create a new system which is and feels more inclusive. Debates about hard, soft, single market, customs union, ECJ - these are process issues which perpetuate 'exclusivity' and the sense to those outside them that what they want doesn't matter.

Whereas, if we shift the focus to what needs to change and how we can use Brexit to make that happen - including how we behave in exercising power - we stand a better chance of building people's confidence for things like transition periods and so on. In other words, it won't seem like these things we keep arguing about are ways of not doing what the voters have decided needs to happen.

Just as importantly, changing our behaviours will reset politics so that, in future, voters do not believe the only candidates they can trust are the outsiders who, more often than not, are the ones with the extreme views.

Tony Blair concluded his recent essay thus: "Politics today are volatile and unpredictable. In these times, best hold to what you believe. The centre may appear marginalised; but in the hearts and minds of many, it simply needs to be renewed. Brexit makes this renewal urgent."

I would argue that what those of us in positions of responsibility in all parties and none - together with leaders in other fields - have to understand is this: Brexit is the route to renewal chosen for us by those who feel most let down and who most want things to change.

In these times, we owe it to them and everyone else to get it right.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston is a Conservative Peer and a former Leader of the House of Lords

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