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Make May change tack

Prime Minister Theresa May during a press conference in 10 Downing Street, London on the air strikes against Syria. Photo: PA, Simon Dawson. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

As Theresa May’s leadership once again comes under close scrutiny, JANE MERRICK argues now is perfect opportunity to stop a hard Brexit

Where does Theresa May see Britain’s place in the world, as Brexit draws nearer?

This week, the 53 leaders of Commonwealth countries gathered in London for their biennial summit under the theme ‘towards a common future’, hinting at the organisation’s keenness to move on from the inglorious days of Britain’s empire to something more equal and progressive. As a nod to this, the young royals, including bride-to-be Meghan Markle, played a prominent part in ceremonial events around the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Yet as the summit unfolded, the reactionary, imperialist aspects of this country’s history were in full public view.

The prime minister must examine her own role in the Windrush scandal, in which the children of people who came here to help rebuild the country after the war have been threatened with deportation under a cold, unthinking Home Office policy devised by May herself.

While not directly linked to Brexit – the policy dates back to 2014, when May was home secretary – the concept of making the UK a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants comes from the same dark place that fuelled nationalist sentiment around the 2016 vote to leave.

As David Lammy said in the House of Commons, despite the U-turn over the treatment of the Windrush generation, it is a national disgrace that this situation arose in the first place. There is huge public support for those affected by the fiasco: a YouGov poll showed 78% believe they have the right to stay. Given how closely linked May is to this scandal, public confidence in her premiership must be dented.

Similarly, the prime minister’s decision to join the US and France in air strikes against Syrian regime chemical weapons sites last weekend without a vote in parliament has sparked controversy with the public.

While there is broad support for taking military action in response to the horrific chemical weapons attack in Douma – in which dozens of people, including children, were killed and many more injured – the majority of voters believe parliament should have had a say before that action took place.

After a difficult start to the year, when a reshuffle designed to reassert her authority over the cabinet ended up undermining it, the prime minister’s standing had recovered somewhat after her tough response to the Salisbury poisoning. Crucially, she won support on the European and international stage over the question of Russian involvement in the attempted assassination of the Skripals. While the fallout from Salisbury was never going to soften up Brexit negotiators in Brussels in terms of the nature of a future trade deal, the support for May’s position did show that Britain remains a respected nation in Europe and the rest of the world.

Yet, after the Syria non-vote and the Windrush scandal, May’s failings in political judgement have been exposed once again. These two issues, while notionally separate, feed into wider discontent over her lack of consensus-building over Brexit. By refusing to recall parliament – which was still possible in the hours before the air strikes – the prime minister has appeared anti-democratic and authoritarian.

Even though she did not, technically, require the approval of MPs before committing British forces to military action, her decision to override parliament fuels the impression of a leader determined to railroad policies against the wishes of MPs and the public. Similarly, her personal role in the Windrush scandal is undeniable – as home secretary, she relished her image as an authoritarian who was tough on immigration, so she must now shoulder some of the blame for regarding real people as just statistics to be whittled down to please the readers of the Daily Mail.

It is true that home secretary Amber Rudd announced a U-turn and that May agreed to meet leaders of Commonwealth countries concerned about the fiasco, after her officials in Downing Street initially rejected such talks, and that she has apologised to those affected, but this new-found warmheartedness from the government rings hollow, coming as it did only after a huge backlash from MPs and the public.

The more authoritarian the prime minister is regarded, and the more she seems willing to sidestep the Commons, the greater the imperative to stop a hard Brexit surely becomes.

This week’s launch of the People’s Vote by MPs from all parties, led by Conservative Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Ummuna, keeps up the pressure on the government. While some have criticised the new cross-party movement as being an attempt to push for a second referendum, its existence is urgent and necessary while the exact terms of Brexit are still unclear – it is simply a demand for the public to have a say, a first say, on a hard Brexit. The prospect of a hard Brexit remains, while the issues of the customs union, single market and the Northern Ireland border are yet to be settled.

This week saw the start of the long process of parliament trying to reassert control of the democratic process of Brexit, as the House of Lords began three weeks of debates on the report stage of the EU withdrawal bill. The government faces certain defeat on a range of amendments to the legislation, including on the fixed date for Brexit, the customs union and the single market. Ministers will have to fight to overturn these defeats when the bill returns to the Commons later this year. Because the government is under obligation to hold a meaningful vote by MPs on the final deal for Brexit, expected this autumn, UK departure is by no means a foregone conclusion.

A drop in public confidence in governments and prime ministers on one or two issues can turn into a collapse across the board. Next month’s local elections present a test for May’s leadership, particularly because expectations are high for the Conservatives – they should pick up scores of seats from UKIP, who are unlikely to match their peak performance in local government in 2014. For the Tories, anything that falls short on May 3 will be seen as a bad night.

After losing her majority at last year’s general election, it took several months for May to recognise she needed to adopt a more consensus-building approach to Brexit. Yet if she is weakened by local elections, her lack of a parliamentary vote on Syria and her role in the Windrush fiasco, will May decide to double down on her command and control premiership style?

With the public losing confidence in her leadership, there is an opportunity, surely, for Remainers to push against a hard Brexit for which the government has no mandate. And if the prime minister is true to her apology over Windrush, and to the forward-looking theme of the Commonwealth summit this week, she must realise that Britain’s future success does not come from anti-immigrant, isolationist, hard Brexit thinking.

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