Brexit, calm water captains and lacking vision | Matthew Bugeja

Theresa May either needs to become an exceptional, once-in-a-generation leader, capable of driving the country to pastures anew, or someone who can needs to emerge

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to obtain an electoral mandate backfired
UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to obtain an electoral mandate backfired

On January 23, 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised that should the Conservatives be returned to power in the following election, the UK would discuss its relationship with the EU with Brussels, and hold an in/out referendum on its continued EU membership based on any deal that would be struck with the EU.

More than four and a half years later, the British political scene has not seen any stability since,

Cameron’s reasoning for a referendum at the time was sound, even if it overestimated his ability to bring considerable concessions from Brussels (which was always going to be difficult) and to convince enough voters and Eurosceptic within his own Conservative party of the benefits of remaining in the Union. He hoped to get a large enough electoral mandate to render his Eurosceptic backbenchers toothless.

He was mistaken. He won some concessions from Europe, as well as the election. But he failed in convincing the British public to back him on remaining in the EU. To make matters worse, Downing Street did not plan for the possibility of Brexit. A short-sighted and irresponsible move, regardless of the desired outcome.

Cameron handed in his resignation, and his replacement, Theresa May, had her work cut out for her. She assumed the leadership of both the Government and the Conservative party just three weeks after the surprise Brexit result in June 2016. She spent months trying to determine a way forward and build a consensus around the UK’s plan for leaving the EU. The Brexit referendum was held on June 23, 2016. The UK handed in its withdrawal notice on March 31, 2017. That was a period of 281 days for the UK to get itself organised, and set about the gargantuan task of untangling its relationship of over 40 years with the EU. In this sense, 281 days was far from sufficient.

The UK needed, and still needs as much time as it can get to determine its own path after its membership in the Union is over, and that will require an innovative, and visionary leader in the vein of Churchill, Thatcher or Blair (prior to the Iraq war debacle). That type of leadership is in short supply, on either side of the aisle in Westminster.

Whilst Theresa May sought to forge a Brexit strategy, she was taking note of polls which had put her just over 21 points ahead of Jeremy’s Corbyn’s Labour Party at a time in which she had a slim 12 seat majority in Parliament. This was a good political move at the time, despite what many commentators have come out to say since the result, given that the Tories had a clear advantage, and did not want to go through an election campaign towards the end of Brexit negotiations. That would have strengthened the EU’s hand, whereby they could play for time, and seek to place more pressure on the UK towards the end of the negotiations.

May sought to obtain an electoral mandate to push ahead with her very loosely-defined Brexit strategy (get the best deal for Britain, even if we don't know what that is just yet). This backfired – not because she called the election in the first place, but because she ran an uninspired electoral campaign with several policy mistakes along the way, in comparison to a surprisingly effective Labour campaign. The Tories actually lost 13 seats, with Labour gaining 30. This led to Theresa May needing to rely on the support the Democratic Unionist Party, a pro-Union (UK union, not European Union), pro-Brexit, and socially conservative northern Irish party to ensure that the government remains afloat. In addition, she also now depends on the good will and support of the very backbenchers whose influence she sought to weaken.

For the EU, the business of negotiating and finalising the terms for Brexit cannot come to an end fast enough – and this was perhaps one of the first indications that the process will be fraught with clashing agendas and intransigent positions. With the EU now pursuing integration in part as a response to Donald Trump’s more aloof approach to Europe, as well as to forge ahead on areas in which the UK was more reluctant to be involved in, it will want to put as the UK into what is effectively a “political quarantine” to avoid “infecting” other members with thoughts of leaving.

The Tories, however, are now in a precarious position on several fronts. The Brexit clock started on  March 31, 2017, which gives the UK two years in which to agree on terms of its departure with Brussels. As of the time of writing, three months have passed, and the British government is no closer to providing clarity on its desired outcome in Summer 2017 than it had in Summer 2016. Saying that no deal is better than a bad deal is not a strategy, it is a red line. But the process leading to that red line remains lacking.

The UK’s ability to negotiate Brexit on what they would feel to be advantageous terms (such as access to the single market without allowing free movement of EU nationals in the UK, for example) was a long shot to begin with. It is far more unlikely now. Whilst good will may exist on both sides to some degree, there would be considerable political costs for making too many concessions on what either side see as core principles: the UK wants control over its border and a return of full sovereignty, whilst the EU will only deal with the UK as a third-party country, who will need to negotiate any new relationship with Brussels based on a respect for the four EU freedoms of movement, capital, goods and people.

Theresa May is likely to survive in the short-term, as the last thing her party will want is more upheaval in the middle of Brexit negotiations. There are a few candidates who consider replacing her, but the UK could not afford any delays once it triggered Brexit, and it certainly cannot afford any more going forward. The UK’s economic growth has slowed in the first quarter to just 0.2%, which shows that uncertainty can hurt businesses and the economy in the short to medium term.

Without going into the merits of the referendum campaign or outcome, the British people have voted for Brexit. The electoral mandate given to Theresa May is too weak for the average Prime Minister – which is why May either needs to become an exceptional, once-in-a-generation leader, capable of driving the country to pastures anew, or someone who can needs to emerge.

As it says in the Book of Proverbs – where there is no vision, the people perish. Vision and leadership are needed, in good supply and in short order.