The New European’s Editor-at-Large says it’s time for the Prime Minister to put the country first.
Referendum Night. The early hours. ITN studios, Gray’s Inn Road, London. I am in a bright green television studio, sitting alongside Liam Fox, when broadcaster Tom Bradby confirms Leave has won, and though some results are still to be announced there is now no way of Remain making up the deficit.
Fox and I were waiting to be interviewed, part of the through-the-night carousel of time-filling panels to keep the country engaged until the result was known. As clarity came, and with it a sinking feeling inside my stomach, I looked across at Fox, expecting to witness, and be further saddened by, the look of unadulterated joy that surely crosses a face when years of campaigning finally crosses the victory line.
Instead, he looked as sick as I felt. Even beneath the television make-up, blood seemed to be draining from his face. He muttered something about having seen ‘David’ earlier in the week, and how the prime minister ‘hadn’t seen this coming’. I can’t remember what either of us said when it came to our studio discussion, but I do remember as we walked out together, we were both silent. I remember too that when we got back to the atrium where politicians and commentators were milling about waiting to be called onto the carousel, among the first we saw was Fox’s fellow Leave campaigner, David Davis.
‘We did it,’ exclaimed Davis.
‘We did,’ replied Fox.
‘So what now?’ I asked.
Davis laughed, though less cheerily or confidently than the chuckle that has long been his stock-in-trade. Fox still had the look of a man condemned.
Many of you will also remember, a few hours later, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove emerging, at their moment of greatest triumph, with the look of men newly let out of jail but only to learn their mothers had died and their children had been taken away for slaughter. It was not exactly ‘Brexit’s Coming Home’, was it?
We now know enough about both men, and their inherent disloyalty, to be sure that their evident regret was not about the role they had played in David Cameron’s ejection from Number 10. No, what all of those downbeat looks on the faces of Brexiters revealed was that having campaigned so hard for something in which they seemingly believed so much, they did not have a clue how to make it happen in practice.
There was no Plan A, no Plan B, no Plan C. There was no plan at all. I wonder, even, whether part of the fear in the eyes of Davis and Fox, Johnson and Gove, was the worry that Cameron’s successor, whoever it turned out to be, might actually give them the responsibility of devising that plan. It turned out to be Theresa May, and she went the whole hog, throwing three of them into the main Brexit jobs.
May’s premiership is littered with ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ moments. Her snap general election gambit was but the most dramatic, and the most ill-advised. As for the runner-up, it is surely between triggering the Article 50 exit process without her own clear plan, and appointing Johnson, Davis and Fox, and later Gove, to be inside the tent pissing in, rather than outside the tent pissing all over themselves.
Johnson’s defining quality is narcissism, true expertise in auto-turd-polishing; Davis’s is intellectual laziness and the viewing of politics as a gossipy game; Fox’s is ideological Transatlanticism. None of them was suited to the roles she gave them, and it is as much a failure of her leadership as their qualities that she did so. Johnson, in particular, should never have been appointed, and should have been sacked several times before he finally went in Davis’ wake.
May sought to compare herself to Gareth Southgate this week. Southgate has built a new England side by building unity around shared values and culture, and the rewarding of genuine talent regardless of historic reputation. He has under-promised and over-delivered. He has encouraged openness and transparency. He has not allowed dilettantism. He has inspired loyalty. He has led by example. Can May put a tick to any of those?
One of the most significant decisions Southgate made, barely commented on in recent days, was to put an end to Wayne Rooney’s international career so he could build a new team around new talent and a new style. Not easy, but right for the long-term interests of the team. May has tended to duck difficult personnel decisions rather than confront them; go with the noise, rather than create her own; let strategy be dictated by others; follow not lead. But as Michel Barnier’s clock ticked remorselessly on, last Friday she knew she had to begin to bring things to a head.
She got her Cabinet ‘deal’. With her ministers trapped mobile-phone-less inside, she strode out to the television camera waiting in the Chequers garden and delivered up the latest in the long line of optimistic platitudes that have littered this process ever since the dread words ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ passed her lips. And precisely because it was a ‘deal’, all aimed at uniting the Cabinet for a few days rather than serving the country for a few generations, it fell apart fast. Two years and three weeks to get there; two days and three hours to collapse.
So what now? Well now, she really does have to bring things to a head. And that means she can no longer pretend that the various wings of her party are reconcilable. In trying to please everyone, she has ended up satisfying nobody.
From that base, with the cries of betrayal raining down from the right of her, and incompetence from the left, she should frankly give up even trying to please all of the people all of the time, and instead confront the reality of the deal that fell apart. Namely that Brexit is destroying itself and, if we are not careful, will destroy the country she leads.
There are many routes to a People’s Vote, but one of them is with her leading it. Cabinet is divided. Parliament is divided. Labour is divided, and there is little sign of any of those divisions healing any time soon. It is a race now between her and Jeremy Corbyn as to who gets to the People’s Vote first. They could do worse than get there together. Regardless of party interest, it is becoming clearer by the day that it is the only means by which we can resolve the crisis, and even begin the process of unifying a country more divided than I have ever known it to be.