Theresa May is engaged in a series of spontaneous chess battles, and with fresh rumours swirling of a snap election, the outcomes of none are certain
It would be churlish to deny that the economics of Brexit are holding up a lot better than most leading Remain campaigners predicted before June 23. But the politics of Britain’s vote to end its 43 year membership of the European Union are already proving pretty destructive within and beyond the EU’s borders.
First the good news in a week that saw Donald Trump’s scattergun approach to policymaking take the shine off Theresa May’s successful Washington debut. Worldwide uproar over the president’s divisive Muslim visa policy was followed by the shabbier spectacle of British MPs bending a grudging knee to David Davis’s ‘trust the people’ imperative. In voting through the second reading of the Supreme Court-inspired Brexit bill, they too were unavoidably divisive.
Nonetheless, significant inward investment continues to flow into the UK to offset footloose bankers dispatching some of their London staff to Europe or New York. At a provisional outturn of 2% over the year, UK GDP (0.6% in Q4 alone) even outperformed the rest of the sluggish G7 pack. Can consumer-driven growth ward off gloomy prognostications like garlic to a vampire? Or is this merely a respite, the lull before the vampire storm?
Most unrepentant experts, even City pundits on Brexit newspapers, say the downturn cannot long be postponed and that chancellor Philip Hammond thinks so too as he prepares a gloomy March budget. Voters’ unexpected decision to max out their credit cards (rather than cut back) reflects their fear of price rises and falling pounds rather than optimism about a glorious Brexit future, they say. In doing so they risk ‘enemies of the people’ scorn from the patriotic tabloids.
Yet, Brexiters – should we call them ‘BreaksIts’ in retaliation for ‘Remoaners’? – have their bull points too. Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook still plan to build new European HQs in London, the world’s biggest bike maker, Pankaj Munjal, wants to open a plant in bike-friendly Manchester. The Danes are funding science research in Oxford. Life goes on. What’s more, Trump has promised May a trade deal with the United States as soon after her EU divorce comes through as propriety and transitional Brexit strings allow. He told her he loves NATO too.
Can such animal spirits get any bouncier? Yes. The Prez actually held Theresa’s hand on those now notorious White House steps, though whether from affection, gallantry or vertigo (whose?) became less clear by the day.
For a full news cycle – 24 whole hours – joy in Fleet St went largely unconfined, gushing superlatives (‘Lady in red enchants host’ etc) scattered like confetti on the unlikely couple. It breathed life back into a ‘special relationship’ which sometimes looks as forlorn as Miss Haversham, waiting in vain in her dusty bridal gown.
Then the politics burst in and spoiled the wedding party. Did Trump forewarn May that he was going to impose his ill-judged ban on seven Muslim countries, though none that he has business interests in, the spiteful pointed out. It barely matters. Caught on the back foot in the air from Washington to Turkey (needy leaders must find friends where they can) May gave the travelling press corps a typically cautious initial response, hardened up slowly to outright disapproval at PMQs.
It was a familiar dilemma. Despite sophisticated on board communications networks, travelling PMs feel out of touch. They can’t watch Sky News or read the Daily Mail. Nor can they escape from the press pack they have brought along to record their triumphs. The hacks are racking up expenses and need a story. The ratchet is quickly wound up.
By the time New York-born migrant, Boris Johnson (of all people), had rescued her by toughening up the government’s response and EU leaders, even sensible Donald Tusk, had lapsed into hysteria (the Trump threat to Europe is not yet to be equated with ISIS or President Putin) the damage was done.
To demonstrators on the streets of major British cities and on Twitter May was branded the appeaser of a ‘fascist dictator’. Hadn’t she also broken bread with Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Hadn’t she embarrassed the Queen by inviting the brute – Trump, not Erdogan – for a state visit far too soon?
She had indeed, but petitions calling for its cancellation were clearly not going to change May’s mind. Nor should they. It is too late. Officials can only hope that all the gold paint and royal bling does not prompt the dealmaker-in-chief to make a Trump Palace Hotel bid which Her Majesty might feel tempted to accept. Buck House is not popular with the Royals.
Few outsiders involved in the enjoyable uproar have much understanding of how the American political system actually works. Its elaborate checks and balances between the three branches of government are designed to protect them and the citizens from the tyranny of each other, often a recipe for gridlock. The constitutional architecture is now going to be tested in ways that may – may – be without precedent. Remember, this president is not really a Republican, he’s a maverick independent, a third party insurgent like Ross Perot or George Wallace, but one who captured a major party.
Some of Trump’s executive orders will be neutered by the bureaucracy and by the real Republicans in Congress and the cabinet. His fiat is already being tested in the courts. There are only so many senior officials to whom he can do his reality TV shtick and say: ‘You’re fired’. As wiser heads were quick to point out, President Obama’s week one order to shut Guantanamo Bay is yet to occur. FDR and Teddy Roosevelt had major clashes with the courts.
In any case, righteous British and European zeal and energy might more usefully be re-focussed closer to home than on reflex anti-Americanism, however distasteful US voters’ choices – Nixon, Reagan, George W Bush – sometimes seem at the time. It’s primarily their issue, not ours, and we all have problems of our own, as President Trump has been tactless enough to point out.
As he flexed his presidential muscles, the French socialists decided that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership has been sufficiently promising that they would chose left wing outlier, Benoit Hamon, as their presidential candidate. Former PM Francois Fillon, the establishment’s conservative choice to see off the NF’s Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff, had already stumbled into a shabby scandal over his wife’s ‘fake’ job and 500,000 euro income from the taxpayer.
Can Fillon recover? Can the insurgent challenge of boyish centre-left reformer, ex-economics minister, Emmanuel Macron seize the opportunity thus presented to save the republican elite – the euro and, possibly, the EU itself – from le Pen? Being charisma-averse good Germans the SPD’s solution to a flagging centre left is more cautious: it has picked solid Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, to take on an embattled Angela Merkel in September. Schulz is a punitive Hard Brexit advocate.
Seemingly as oblivious to these developments, official Whitehall keeps plodding on towards the triggering date for Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, early March, not March 31, some now predict..
The Supreme Court’s 8-3 vote in favour of prior parliamentary legislation led to the two-day Commons debate a week later. It fell to chief Brexit minister, David Davis, repeatedly to warn diverse audiences that, whatever amendments the Commons or Lords attach to his micro-bill, Brexit will prevail on the government’s terms – or such terms as it can extract from Chancellor Schulz and President Le Pen. In the nightmare scenario either of them could be elected with Vladimir Putin’s active assistance.
Old Brussels hands warn that there will be probably three interlocking strands to the Brexit negotiation. One is the terms of the divorce and outstanding payments (troublesome enough for the Daily Brute, even before Sir Ivan Rogers told MPs on Wednesday it could be a € 40-60 billion); the second the framework of a future relationship, if one can be had; lastly the vital transitional arrangements which prevent either side or both going over a cliff.
In Wednesday’s Commons debate, the former chancellor, George Osborne, intervened to predict a ‘bitter’ divorce between a government prioritising sovereignty over laws and migration and an EU team prioritising the integrity of the Union. Neither is prioritising the economy, he said, and the settlement will follow most divorces to become ‘a trade off between access and money’. The scope for what May calls ‘calamitous self harm’ is clearly very real – to both sides. Trump’s Washington now says it has May’s back, but how much are its words worth?
May’s series of simultaneous chess games includes less publicised but significant meetings with the three devolved parliaments – in Cardiff – and with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in Dublin. Scotland’s ever resourceful first minister Nicola Sturgeon is now trying to square the circle by keeping Scotland inside the single market but outside the EU, the Norwegian model. She is improvising – much like May who is determined to give Edinburgh little of substance.
Labour’s internal woes get plenty of unkind media attention, but its three-way split on the Brexit bill – support, abstain, oppose – serves chiefly to underline how cruel is its dilemma and how marginalised its leadership. MPs, activists and Labour voters are divided on Brexit. It would be the task of a more sophisticated regime than arch-rebel Corbyn’s to find a formula that unites them, not least urgently because they face two dangerous by-elections at Copeland, in nuclear Cumbria, and in Stoke.
Both vacancies arose because sitting Labour MPs decided their party had no future under Corbyn, one of them – historian Tristram Hunt – leaving a political mausoleum (so wits quipped) to join a museum, London’s V & A. Labour’s defending candidate in Copeland, NHS professional and councillor, Gillian Troughton, will make the NHS the safe centrepiece of her unCorbynite campaign. Stoke Central’s Gareth Snell apparently once called Brexit ‘a massive pile of shit’ and was scarcely less well disposed towards his leader. His main natty challenger, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, backs Trump on waterboarding – not previously a local issue.
With bad luck and judgment Labour could lose both seats, intensifying the political vacuum which only May’s uninspiring team can fill. The SNP and Lib Dems, both united in opposing Brexit and the bills, but irrelevant to the parliamentary maths, cannot fill that gap.
The political fragility is self-evident. In the Commons, Osborne joined the Labour and Tory frontbenches in accepting that the slim referendum verdict must prevail, an act of ‘collective madness’ according to Alex Salmond. Among parliament’s few surviving big beasts – a species as threatened as the snow leopard – only Ken Clarke, florid and battered, stood firm against what he regards as an Alice in Wonderland dive down the rabbit hole.
Sad, defiant, poignant, his 47 year Commons career closing with defeat for his core belief, the speech was either as irrelevant as some pygmy detractors were quick to proclaim or an act of lonely, prophetic heroism in a house that had tragically lost its way rather than regained its sovereignty. Only time will tell. In the corridors renewed talk emerged of a snap election.
Anything is possible now.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian