Our editor-at-large on his new party piece: the speech the PM should have made to her party conference
Whether talking to a business, a charity, a conference, school or college, I involve the audience in a show of hands exercise, which I will now ask you all to join. I am heading well into the tens of thousands, especially on the first two, which I have been asking for longer. So this is a much larger sample than most polls.
1.) Are you optimistic/pessimistic about Trump’s Presidency of the US?
2.) Are you optimistic/pessimistic about Brexit?
3.) Do you think Theresa May will lead the Tories into the next election?
4.) Do you think Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister?
Of several recent events my three biggest were the literary festivals at Cheltenham and Carlisle, and the National Transport Awards in London, well over 1,000 pairs of hands. At the awards, Transport Secretary and committed Leaver Chris Grayling spoke pre-dinner, and I spoke post-dinner. The share of the vote among the 600 or so from the transport sector was fairly typical.
On Trump, as with every audience I have tested, there was near universal pessimism. I spotted two arms go up for optimism. I sensed that Grayling’s modest elbow jerk was as much a diplomatic reflex as an expression of genuine support for the Narcissist-in-Chief. Trump is widely reviled. Fact. Not fake news.
On Brexit, Grayling’s arm was raised more confidently for optimism, along with somewhere between 10 and 15% of the rest of those gathered; 85% up for pessimistic. This is broadly in line with most business events and slightly higher than public and third sector audiences.
For question three, on May’s future, I warned Grayling he might be in trouble if he didn’t raise his hand on this one, and duly he did. This time, he was slightly more isolated. I reckon those who thought the PM would lead the Tories into the next election was closer to the 10% than 15. As to whether they thought Corbyn would be PM, again the response was familiar to me from any audience outside committed Labour political circles… perhaps slightly more than one in ten. This is admittedly higher than it was before the election, when it was between zero and 5%, but it continues to suggest that the Momentum bubble that so enveloped the Labour conference at Brighton is not working its way through to a broader public.
Taken together, the widespread public response to these four questions indicates something of a crisis in our politics. Or, as I put it when offering my own instant analysis of the responses, ‘so we’re fucked then’. Has there ever been a time when the US President was almost universally loathed, when there was next to no confidence that the biggest challenge facing the UK government could be met, and little hope or expectation that either of the main party leaders could deliver success for themselves, let alone the country?
At all three events, and a fourth, smaller charity fundraiser, I tried out my new party piece… no, not my excellent rendition of Ode To Joy on the bagpipes, which you can hear on the New European podcast… but the speech May should have made, instead of the substance-devoid, comedian-interrupted, backdrop-collapsing Conference cough-fest of a few weeks ago. Here is a summary …
Part 1, why I voted Remain. Because I believed we are better off and safer in than out.
Part 2, why I was a bit of reluctant Remainer. Because there is a lot in the EU needing reform. Oh, and the Project Fear campaign was awful, George.
Part 3, why, having become Prime Minister, I have felt duty bound to deliver Brexit. Because that is what the country voted for.
Part 4, why having looked at it every which way, I believe it cannot be done. And so we are not doing it.
Also, far from May apologising as she did for her hopeless election campaign, it would have been better had she been introduced by David Cameron, and he been the one apologising.
It was, after all, his referendum that has plunged the country into the peril it now faces, and his defeat from whose consequences he has now fled, leaving poor May to deal with the God awful mess.
There is no doubt that when Part 4 – ‘it cannot be done’ – left her lips, there would have been shoutings and storm-outs. But that could have been the moment where May transformed herself from prisoner of the right to leader of the nation. Imagine she had said this:
‘Yes, shout away. Storm out if you wish. But I have looked at it from every angle. And, as your leader, I have concluded it cannot be done without enormous damage to our economy, to our living standards, to jobs, to inflation, to our public services, to our standing in the world. I have tried my best. But the damage that will be done is too great, and I am not prepared to inflict it on my own country, to appease the minority who have taken a vote of the majority in the referendum and turned it into an extreme form of Brexit for which few if any actually voted for. The cost is too high. The cost of leaving the single market is too high. The chaos of leaving the Customs Union is too great. I am not prepared to have that on my conscience. Sorry, but there we are.
‘I am today publishing the legal advice which tells me that I have the right unilaterally to revoke Article 50, and I intend immediately to do so. I shall be speaking to Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and other EU leaders later today.
‘In an ideal world I would have secured Cabinet agreement for this before making this speech. Sadly, there are those – you know who they are – who put their own ambition or ideology before the national interest, and who behave more as journalists feeding the media than as statesmen trying to steer the ship of state. So I say to Boris, to Michael, to Liam, and to their acolytes, it is time for you to make your choice. If you feel you cannot support this position, and don’t wish to listen to the arguments I will be making for what I admit is a change in direction, then you know what you have to do. I am ready for any challenge, confident that finally I will be able to fight for what I believe is the right course for Britain, and confident that once the public have the proper debate we failed to have during the referendum and the election, my view can prevail in the country.
‘The Labour Party will also have to make up its mind about how to respond to this. It is clear that most Labour MPs support the position I am setting out today, though their leader may need to be persuaded. It may be that we will need a general election to settle this. It may be that at some point we will need a referendum to reverse the outcome of the first one. I am aware I am launching something here, the course of which may well be unpredictable. I am prepared to take all the risks attached to that. For I am no longer willing to pretend. I am not longer willing for the delusions of the few to dictate a strategy for the many, when so much is at stake.
‘I will also be publishing all the sectoral advice papers we have received on the impact of Brexit on all aspects of our national life, so that MPs can debate their dire warnings fully. I believe that when the public gets the chance to read these, and see the full picture that I have seen, they will support the stance I am taking.
‘Conference, I want to thank you for your kindness in recent days. I know many of you have been worried I might be ill. I feel a lot better now. As David no doubt found in making his apology, telling the truth always makes us feel better. And what has been making me ill is the reality of which I have been certain more each day… that Brexit is a disaster, a potential catastrophe for our country. That far from lancing the boil on Europe, as David hoped, the referendum has made matters worse. That my duty now is to steer the country to the only sensible decision I see before me – a rethink, a change of course, not Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit, but no Brexit at all. I am aware this will have come as a shock to you. But as your leader, I am saying, with all due humility but with absolute certainty, that this is the only course, and the right course.
‘Thank You for listening. For those members of the Cabinet who wish to join me in seeing this through, I will see you for a special meeting at the Conference hotel in ten minutes.’
The Party would go wild, for a while. The Brextremist media would go wild. But given how wild they are already, would anyone notice? The Dacre mouth has frothed so much, further frothing is just more of the same, the impotence of rage. There might well be trouble on the streets for a while, but we are likely to have that once the post-Brexit economic recession happens anyway.
May might lose her job.
Equally this might be the way to save it.
It could be the making of her. It would give her the chance to do what she needs to do – stand up to those MPs who not only don’t fear no deal, but actively want it, because it is the route to an extreme Hard Brexit that will deliver the hard right vision of a low tax, low regulation, low investment in public services country they have long wanted the UK to be the Cayman Islands with nukes and a lot of history.
For them, ideology comes before the national interest and Hard Brexit is a right-wing hard on. For the rest of the country, it is a disaster in the making, and more and more people are beginning to see that.
Which is why most of the country, if only May could deliver the speech above, would breathe an enormous sigh of relief as she did so, and get on with their lives, knowing their children had something of a future to look forward to again.