Absurd as it may sound, could Theresa May be the one to keep Britain in the EU? Guto Harri, former aide to Boris Johnson, says there could be a way
If Woody Allen is right that 80% of life is ‘just showing up’, the prime minister should have secured a special award at this week’s Emmys.
Rarely has she lived up to her promise of being strong and stable, but Theresa May is still here, getting up and getting on with it. Securing a deal is starting to look do-able. Isolating the ideologues in her party no longer seems beyond her.
But there’s an even bigger prize looming tantalisingly close – a place in history as the leader who saved the UK from self-inflicted catastrophe. Let me explain …
Her Chequers deal has few friends but it’s still flying and the wild Brexiteers have failed to come up with a credible and attractive alternative. A plan that envisaged billions being spent on a missile defence system and sending a new military expeditionary force to the Falklands seemed too bonkers for even them, and the no-deal scenario they parade as a tempting default has started to look really scary.
Ignore the experts, we were told in the original referendum, but when the Bank of England warns of 4% interest rates coupled with a 33% crash in house prices, some of us struggle to sleep at night. The phrase ‘he’s just a banker’ isn’t comforting.
When the IMF warn of ‘dire consequences’, including lower growth, devaluation and a mounting budget deficit, I find that its managing director Christine Lagarde’s CV (international lawyer, French finance minister and global finance chief) makes the warning more, not less, credible. When the credit ratings agency Moody warns of a weaker pound, rising inflation and significant pay squeeze, I don’t shout ‘what do they know?’ And I cannot say ‘f**k business’ like my ex-boss and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson when sober and serious wealth creators warn of cutting investment and shifting jobs out of the UK. So why do I feel more hopeful than I’ve felt since June 2016, when the political stage seems to cluttered with chaos and potential carnage? And why do I see Theresa May as a potential saviour, rather than the undertaker of a strong, influential Britain?
This may be the stuff of fantasy, but it no longer strikes me as ridiculously far-fetched to hit next summer with Theresa May still at No.10 and the UK still part of the EU.
Having exposed Jacob Rees-Mogg and his merry men as being devoid of any plan, the PM is now successfully polarising the debate and framing the choice as between Chequers or no-deal, with all the pain that better people than me are warning against. But between the extremes lies a third option – the status quo.
Don’t expect May to argue for this until her back is right up against he wall but imagine – as seems highly likely – that whatever deal she secures cannot command a majority in the Commons. What then?
Losing such a vote would raise such serious questions about her ability to govern that a general election would surely become unavoidable. Unless the issue parliament failed to resolve was sent back to the people.
In that context, the only options would be whatever survives of the Brexit plan (post negotiations) and the current state of play – remaining part of the EU. And given that choice, with little enthusiasm for the former, the later may win.
In that scenario, May would go down in history as the understated woman who never advocated Brexit, didn’t vote for it and only became leader because one of the boys who led us off the cliff shafted the other when Downing Street looked like an open goal.
She picked up the pieces and peeled a battered Boris Johnson off the battlefield to lock him in to her mission. As she rightly points out, he signed up to the Northern Ireland stopgap he now describes as a suicide vest, or car crash, and supported it in cabinet for seven months. He even raised the toast to the Chequers deal he now wants to chuck.
Her advantage is that she acted in good faith, negotiated with intent and delivered a plan. If she delivers an option for an orderly Brexit which Brussels can endorse she will have fulfilled her commitment to honour the will of the people. She will have changed a loud howl of a protest into a cold-blooded proposal to fundamentally change Britain’s place in the world.
If the electorate – confronted with a clearer, starker proposal – endorse it, she will have delivered Brexit. If they reject it, she could rightly claim that the UK had had second thoughts, not that she had scuppered the dream. History will remember her, and most of our grandchildren will thank her.
Embarrassing? Yes, and a hideous waste of time, effort and goodwill. But just because we have dug a very big hole doesn’t mean we have to bury ourselves in it. It’s late, but not too late – I hope.
• Guto Harri is a communications consultant. He is a former BBC chief political correspondent and worked as Boris Johnson’s communications director when he was mayor of London