The New European’s Editor-at-Large on Theresa May’s strategy of wishful thinking in Brexit negotiations
Wishful thinking. We all do it. I hope Burnley win at West Ham on Saturday. That is my wish. At the far end of fanaticism – mine runs quite deep and I have the obsessive personality medical certificates as evidence – I can persuade myself that if my mind is full of positive thoughts about the match, this can contribute to victory. I know, I know. This is not rational. But irrationality is part of the human condition.
I hope Brexit can be stopped. I know this too is wishful thinking; as in I wish for this to happen. But I am aware of the many and varied obstacles, just as when we are playing West Ham there will be a defence and a goalkeeper to beat, strikers to watch out for.
Indeed, on the train back from our 2-1 win over Everton, where (irrationality alert) my positive thinking surely helped sustain hope after we went a goal down, a fellow passenger saw me sitting there reading my programme and joined me to talk Brexit. It happens a lot. It sustains me in the Brexitological equivalent of going a goal behind, a feeling we have grown well used to as a result not just of the referendum – that felt more like 9-0 – but virtually every time you turn on the BBC as the government’s line to take is reverentially trotted out.
In these random conversations, those telling me I am wasting my time are dwarfed in number by those urging me to keep fighting. Maybe that is because wishful thinkers sense how to seek each other out, in real life as on the internet. Perhaps every time a Farage or a Duncan-Smith or a Jacob Rees-Mogg get on a train – I am assuming the blessed new darling of the Beeb uses trains rather than horse-drawn carriages with footmen – they are mobbed by Brexiteers.
This conversation aboard the Virgin train south was a bit of both to be honest. She was desperate for Brexit to be stopped. But unconvinced that it could be. And perhaps I was tired after the emotional draining of the Burnley comeback, followed by an invigorating session at a new Youth Politics conference in Manchester (90% pessimistic re Brexit by the way), but as she left to continue her journey to the buffet bar, I felt all I had really managed to do was amplify the reasons she was desperate for Brexit to be stopped, not give her hope as to how.
If following Burnley has been an emotional rollercoaster – we were reigning league champions when I first saw us play in 1961, 92nd in the league, needing to win our last game of the season to survive a mere quarter of a century later, and now back defying football gravity in the top half of the Premier League – so is Brexit.
Take last week as a microcosm of the emotional swells that have been part and parcel of our lives since David Cameron wrote his place in history with his UKIP-reducing, election-winning gambit of a referendum. (Wishful thinking on an epic scale – that’ll sort them eh, and cure Tory division on Europe forever?) John Major made a simply stunning speech exposing the nonsenses at the heart of his successor Theresa May’s Brexit ‘strategy’. In a neat follow-up the next day, Tony Blair did the same, but also threw out a warning to the EU that they needed to be serious about reform and stop seeing Brexit as a purely British phenomenon (the Italians underlined the point at the weekend).
This combination got my wishful thinking twitchers twitching hard. Surely, surely, this will impact not just public opinion but also May, as she put the finishing touches to her ‘big speech’ in the series of now largely forgotten ‘big speeches’ by Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.
Yet when it came to May, it was as if Major and Blair had never happened. She said at the top she had listened to all sides of opinion. And then, as has been her practice since becoming Prime Minister, spoke to just one side of the argument.
In politics as in sport it is important to view your opponents as they are, not as you wish them to be, and so I admit, from her own very narrow perspective, the speech worked. Its goal was to seek greater unity in the Tory Party than had hitherto been apparent. In attracting broad welcomes from the Rees-Moggs on one wing, and the Anna Soubry-Nicky Morgans on the other, that goal was broadly secured.
Yet the wishful thinking written across every page of the speech was of a wholly different order to that which I take to football grounds. It was off the scale. In the pursuit of that narrow tactical advantage – Tory unity for a day or two – it was successful. In setting out the contours of a negotiating strategy that the country could understand, and around which people and politics could unite, it added next to nothing to her and the others’ so-called big speeches of the recent past.
And by the time the warm glow of a day’s broadly favourable headlines had worn off, the central problem of her speech was becoming clearer. The big questions remain unanswered. Twenty months on, still no answer to the Irish border question. Still no clarity about what kind of trade policy we would pursue. Still no decision on the choice that actually has to be made. Do we want to be closer to a Norway-style deal? Or Canada? Leadership is about making decisions not just making speeches. It is about confronting the choices not wishing them away. It is about marching towards responsibility not evading it.
On the Irish border question, her ‘solution’ seemed to be that she would discuss it with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the EU negotiators. For heaven’s sake! What have they been doing for 20 months? And can she really be surprised that Varadkar almost immediately made clear this was not purely a bilateral issue between his country and ours, because – as many have been telling her for months – this will be the only land border not just between the UK and Ireland but between the UK and the EU. We have chosen to leave. We have to find the answer. In her speech, answer came there none. ‘The border issue will evaporate. Someone must surely come up with something.’ This is not a strategy. It is wishful thinking.
Then, on trade. Can she not see the brutal irony in her complaining to Donald Trump that his threat of tariffs on steel risks a damaging trade war, while enthusiastically pursuing a policy on Europe that will likely lead to a whole host of… trade wars? In Trump, and the notion we will strike a great deal with the US to make up for the trade we are losing in turning our backs on the biggest single market in the world, rests perhaps the greatest wishful thought of all – that he will be a reliable and understanding ally. America First, remember.
When I put on my lucky socks, seek out a forward-facing seat on the train, and desist from tweeting in the immediate run-up to the match, I know at a deeper level that these are superstitions and emotional tics of little actual meaning, and with zero chance of actual impact on the outcome of the match.
But watching May’s speech I found it alarming that the same vague thought – ‘I’ve got a feeling we can win this’ – is what drives her approach to the single most important game of her life. Worse, the game she is playing affects every single one of us, and those who come after us.
As Burnley prepare for a game, I know that the manager and his coaches are assessing their own players and the opposition. I know they are adapting tactics as they go. I know they are paying attention to every detail that may have an impact on the outcome. That is what gives fans confidence.
Having read all the ‘road to Brexit’ speeches I see no such care and preparation from May and her team. Wishful thinking runs through every single one of them. And if you read first Johnson’s speech, then May’s, it is clear they can’t even agree on what the wishful thinking is, let alone the means to bring it into the real world.
The road to Brexit series of speeches is done. The road to Brexit is not much clearer. And it is frankly terrifying that wishful thinking is the best they have to offer.