The Blog

Mrs May's Strategy

As chalices go, the one passed by Mrs May to Boris Johnson and David Davis gets five stars in the Borgia international poison league. As they sit together at Chevening, the country house which they will together share with fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, they must be reflecting on the predictions made in the referendum campaign. Membership of the single market, or something very like it, without the free movement of workers? That is what the Leavers told us would be available and that is the promise on which they must now make good. Deliver it and all is well and good: fail and the cream could curdle in the silver jugs as each of them tries to deflect blame onto someone else.

Mrs May caught both the commentators and the international community on the hop with her cabinet appointments. Ministers from other countries believe that Johnson has behaved disgracefully, wrecking Britain's future and then failing to follow through by dropping out of the leadership race. They wonder why in forming her new cabinet Mrs May decided to include anyone quite so irresponsible. Surely it is a moment for 'safe hands'? Surely it is a moment for experienced ministers to take the tiller and make sure we get as good a bargain as possible?

All this ignores domestic politics and it is in the pressures of domestic politics that Mrs May's strategy is rooted. In effect she has made a two-way bet. Suppose that her government manages to achieve participation in the market whilst keeping control of the borders, that in a changing international climate the negotiations are carried out successfully. Why then, Mrs May as prime minister will get the credit for it and people will praise her wisdom in choosing such effective negotiators.

Suppose, however, that it doesn't work. Suppose that eighteen months or so from now we are faced with a choice of being outside the single market altogether or accepting the free movement of people. It is then that Mrs May's choice of ministers will come into its own. Not only will the government be seen to have used all its efforts to achieve the goals of the Brexit supporters but the leaders of the "Leave" camp, unable to negotiate anything better, will have to put their names to whatever compromise Mrs May decides to make. Once they have done that, the sting of further resistance from the Leavers is drawn and Mrs May can hope for fairly united support from the country.

Addicts of "Game of Thrones" will be shaking their heads by now. It isn't enough just to look at domestic policies, you have to keep an eye out for twists and turns in the bigger picture. Although no new dynasty of Dragon Kings has yet emerged to upset Mrs May's calculations, it is not just Britain but the world which is in turmoil. The importance of Brexit pales when rated against the upheaval in Turkey, the continuing crisis in the Mediterranean, the possible rise of the National Front in France, the prospect of a Trump presidency, and the general breakdown of popular respect for the political classes.

Any of these factors could throw the negotiations between Britain and the EU into uncharted waters but it is worth focusing on the last of them for a moment. Why is it that electorates, at least in the West, have ceased to respect their political leaders? Why did the British public vote against the recommendation of all three major parties? Why have the Republicans selected Trump to the obvious dismay of the Washington establishment? In both cases large parts of the electorate feel that their concerns are not being listened to. In the US it is poor whites. Here it is almost everyone outside the M25. Instead of worrying about the changes which free movement was making to their lives and neighbourhoods, the British political cognoscenti took the lazier course of describing their perfectly sensible concern as racist. No wonder that they finally turned. If Brexit turns out to be a disaster it will be a disaster with the words "made in Westminster" written firmly across the lid.

It is not just that, of course. Changes in technology have meant that the public have access to information on a far greater scale than was previously the case. That has happened before. The publication of English translations of the Bible in the sixteenth century by men like William Tyndale allowed the public to read the Word of God for themselves in their own language. That cut the priests out of their historic role as the exclusive intermediaries between God and Man and in England led to the replacement of Roman Catholicism by the Anglican Church. There are still priests but their role has been diminished.

The same may now be happening to politicians. The electorate no longer take what they say as given but want to look at the facts for themselves. That is changing the nature of political leadership, and power will go to those who are the first to understand and to embrace that change. This throws another shaft of light across Mrs May's appointment of Boris Johnson. Historically, the leaders of the EU have suffered from a presentation deficit. Many of them, and the current President of the Commission Mr Juncker falls into this category, believe strongly in a much closer union. The trouble is that they have failed to sell a coherent vision of how it will eventually look to the European public. Indeed their failure to do so is probably one of the things which fuels the concerns of the far right. Instead of being clear about their master plan they have gone for an approach of creeping centralisation on the basis that incremental movement is unlikely to precipitate public outrage.

Boris is quite different from the other EU foreign ministers. He is a populist, dangerously charming, funny and a highly persuasive speaker. What is more, as an Englishman he has the advantage that his first language is spoken throughout the European Union. He will be saying a lot about the UK's concerns with the EU project over the next few months and the way in which he presents himself means that his comments will be heard not just by the European politicians but by the European public. Who knows what that will release, but I think that if I was a European leader anxious to limit the effects of Brexit across the Union I would be working hard on my oratorical skills to bring them up to the Johnson standard.

The steel of Mrs May; the presentational skills of Mr Johnson. That could be quite a combination.

Republished from Shaw Sheet.