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A PM of low integrity

Prime Minister Theresa May was recorded tellling Goldman Sach bankers of her worries about Brexit - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In retrospect, a cat gave us all the warning we should have needed.

At the Conservative Party Conference in 2011, Theresa May – the woman who as party chair had years before warned the Tories to ditch their ‘nasty party’ image – stood up as home secretary and gave a speech in support of scrapping the Human Rights Act.

May told the delegates of the villains prospering from the UK’s law protecting human rights – building up to her ultimate example of the law’s ridiculousness: ‘The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.’

She was making it up. May was referencing the tabloid version of an immigration case from three years before, in which a Bolivian man had cited shared ownership of a cat as part of the evidence that he was in a genuine and years-long relationship with a British citizen.

The judge’s statement on the case, which was only two and a half pages long, made it clear the cat was not relevant. It was that relationship – not the cat – which was behind the Home Office’s defeat.

To cap the whole thing, the case had absolutely nothing to do with the Human Rights Act: it was based on May’s Home Office’s own policies. May not only told an obvious and easy to catch untruth, but it also had nothing to do with the substance of what she was talking about. This pattern has become all-too-familiar.

May doesn’t distort the truth with the élan or panache of her cabinet colleagues: May’s distortions feel like the result of panic, of an attempt not to tackle serious decisions. She’s not a natural at the practice and it shows. May is running a government with a broken relationship with the truth, largely because her government is defined by an impossible policy – Brexit, of course – that she doesn’t really believe in.

In public, May was Remain’s most lukewarm supporter, to the point that then-Number 10 communications director Craig Oliver wondered if she was a Leave sleeper agent. But despite largely keeping her powder dry during the campaign, behind closed doors she was more damning of Brexit.

In a secret conversation obtained by the Guardian a few months after the referendum, May was recorded telling Goldman Sachs bankers of her worries about Brexit.

‘I think the economic arguments are clear. I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us,’ she told the private gathering. ‘I think … that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe.

‘If we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say, do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence?’

One would assume that the person who had made those remarks would pay close attention to the warnings around Brexit, the evidence that even new trade deals with the US and elsewhere would come nowhere close to replacing trade lost with the EU, and that leaving the single market will cause severe damage to the economy.

One would assume wrongly: for simple reasons of politics, May has decided to ignore what she knew to be obviously true and pretend that she can deliver a bespoke Brexit deal that lets her leave the single market, restrict immigration, and cause no economic harm – even if she still can’t bring herself to say she would vote differently if the Brexit vote was happening now.

Stuck with ‘leading’ a sclerotic and divided party and delivering a flagship policy she never wanted, May’s distortions and untruth are becoming more blatant, if not more convincing: we are now in the world of May promising a ‘Brexit dividend’ to fund the NHS – an apparent delivery of the Vote Leave bus promise.

May managed to splash last Sunday’s newspapers with headlines promising either ‘£600m’ a week or ‘£384m’ a week for the NHS, deliberately drawing comparisons to Vote Leave’s wilfully dishonest campaign bus in her Marr show interview, sounding like a market trader as she kept repeating the NHS would have £600 million a week more in ‘cash’.

Her repetition of ‘cash’ was an attempt to let her get away with a technicality: usually when we talk about government spending, we talk in ‘real’ terms, meaning we factor in inflation when we talk about budgets, because if we just gave departments the same amount of money each year, it would buy less and less because of inflation. May’s pointless ‘cash’ trick doesn’t pay for a single extra doctor or nurse – it just gets a bigger number for the headlines.

Nor is the £384m a week nearly so much as it sounds. Given that before the Vote Leave bus we never talked about the NHS budget as a weekly thing – and we should stop doing so again as soon as we can – was May is really offering is 3.4% a year extra funding to the NHS, which by 2023/2024 will amount to about £20 billion extra each year (which is £384m a week).

This is about the amount experts in the Institute for Fiscal Studies and King’s Fund say the NHS needs to avert disaster – it’s just enough to keep the service ticking over as it is now, provided that something is done to tackle the social care crisis. It’s not enough money to fund any improvements, let alone any radical change, and it’s less than the average funding rise the NHS has received over the last 70 years. It’s a big fanfare for doing what is the bare minimum.

That’s not the biggest problem with May’s announcement, though. The bigger problem is that she’s announced she plans to spend £20 billion a year more of our money without saying where she’s getting it from.

There is no ‘Brexit dividend’: the economy is already growing more slowly, which means there’s less money to go around, and less money taken in tax. That can only get worse, especially if May fails to get a good Brexit deal. She is going to have to find the money elsewhere, and it’s not a small sum: £20 billion a year is roughly equivalent to a four-point hike in the basic rate of income tax, which would cost an average earner about £680 a year.

No Conservative government would raise it in that way but whatever taxes and tweaks are used, that money needs to be found – or borrowed, which would then mean Conservatives would have to spend the next few years explaining why they’ve spent eight years telling the public we couldn’t borrow more, and making us ask what austerity was supposed to be for.

As ever with May’s untruths, this one is already unravelling, and not even really having the goals that she intended. Polling by Sky Data has found just 34% of the public think there is a ‘Brexit dividend’ – meaning not even all Leave voters believe her – and only 7% think the government is being ‘very honest’ about where the additional NHS funding will come from.

That’s just the beginning of May’s headaches. The next round has been begun by May’s fiscally conservative chancellor Philip Hammond, who now has to find the £20 billion his boss has spent. In a briefing to cabinet colleagues – which naturally immediately leaked – Hammond’s message was stark: this is all the money that’s available to government. There is, he says, nothing left.

That’s a problem for several of his colleagues, who have been expecting the government to replace several of its EU programmes: right now, farm subsidies come from the EU. Farmers have been promised that they will be guaranteed for years to come from the government instead. Is that still funded?

The government was also expected to replace EU structural funds – money from infrastructure investment – now that’s in doubt. And for anyone wanting better funding for police, prisons, courts or schools – Hammond is set to say ‘no’. To create the illusion of keeping Vote Leave’s dishonest promise, May now risks breaking several others.

She has more problems still: May’s long-running solution to her cabinet colleagues promising directly contradictory things is generally to ignore it.

That allows Liam Fox to promise a US trade deal – which would rely on accepting things like hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken – even as Michael Gove promises such things would never be allowed.

It means allowing Sajid Javid to promise the ‘hostile environment’ policy is over (or never existed) while continuing to enforce it. It means saying one thing to the public and another to EU officials – and pretending that no-one notices.

The consequences are grave: it means no-one knows what the government really means, or wants, and means no-one can take anything it says seriously – it might say something different tomorrow. But what the mess does is allow May’s exhausted government to limp on.

But there is only so long May’s achingly fragile edifice of artifice can stand: political gravity will eventually drag it down. There is only so long you can ignore reality, and for May the clock is ticking.

Ultimately, the two biggest lies May tells might be ones she herself seems to believe: ‘I have been very clear’ when she has been anything but, and – of course – ‘nothing has changed’.

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