What will Theresa May’s legacy be?
When asked Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements, older Tories can detain you for some time as they trot out their list. But close to the top for a lot of them will be the UK gaining access to the single market.
When asked John Major’s greatest achievements, the list might be shorter, as was his term in office, but right up there for him would be the role he played in laying fresh foundations for the Northern Ireland peace process.
As the word ‘legacy’ already starts to enter the debate about Theresa May’s doomed premiership, there is a clear risk hers will be to destroy those two great advances of her predecessors.
Her Hard Brexit policy commits the UK to the destruction of Thatcher’s single market achievement, though thankfully her botched election campaign means that debate may yet be re-opened. Her dangerous deal with the DUP meanwhile risks the destruction of Major’s great achievement and that of Tony Blair, who built on what Major started and eventually brokered the Good Friday Agreement.
I use the word broker very deliberately. To a large extent that was what he and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern did. Once there was acceptance that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland was a matter for the people there, and not a strategic question for the UK government, and once it was decided that there were huge issues of inequality for the nationalist community to be addressed, the rest was negotiation.
The principles of consent and fairness were the foundation stones. The hundreds, thousands of hours of debate and dealing and negotiation added the bricks and mortar. There have been setbacks and the occasional political crisis since – we are in the midst of one now – but the house is still more or less standing.
So why do I say May is putting that at risk? Because in basing her strong and stable government (sic) on a deal with the DUP she is inevitably dumping the neutrality of the government position vis-a-vis the two sides, currently in dispute sufficiently serious for the Administration not to be functioning.
As has been pointed out, not least by John Major, the British and Irish governments are the mediators in the process to try to resolve the differences, as they have been many times before. How on earth can they carry out neutral duties of mediation when their entire survival might depend on the ten MPs elected under the banner of the DUP?
Again, May is at odds with her predecessors. David Cameron resisted any reliance on the votes of the DUP because of the huge policy issues between them, especially on moral and social issues like same sex marriage, gay rights and abortion. John Major, who himself had a weak government when under siege from the Eurosceptics he famously called ‘bastards’, had different reasons for refusing to do a deal – he believed it would threaten the government’s ability to be even-handed in any dealings between the two sides of the debate. That was the right and principled thing to do, even if it made his life difficult. What May is doing is wrong, unprincipled, and dangerous.
When I raised this on BBC Question Time last week, I could see from the audience reaction that many, though aware of the DUP’s extreme social conservatism, were largely unaware of this mediation fact. I wonder if May might have been too, but in her panic to cling on to power decided that any port in a storm would do. Now that John Major and others have educated her, I wonder if she might think again. After all, she does change her mind from time to time.
After she became Prime Minister, and did a tour of the devolved Administrations, she met First Minister Arlene Foster, DUP leader, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who would be stunned by the latest turn in events were he still alive to witness them. When I saw McGuinness some weeks later he told me that she had ‘no clue’ about the two issues they had been in the main discussing – Brexit and Northern Ireland. He felt she had no real plan for one, no real understanding of the other, and gave no explanation of how the vital issue of the border between a Northern Ireland out of the EU and a Republic of Ireland still in the EU was to be resolved. We have always been in or out together. This is a massive change and the consequences have not been thought through.
Brexit and the border is the other situation which makes May’s deal so irresponsible. The border is one of the three issues the EU have put out front as the ones that must be resolved first. I have still not heard a credible explanation of how the ‘frictionless border’ preferred by the pro-Brexit DUP can be put in place if the government promises on immigration or the implementation of any future trade deal with the EU are to be properly policed. It is yet one more problem that they seem to think will be solved simply because they say it will. Denial of realities. Reliance on hope. Fingers crossed. La la land.
Also, though Northern Ireland voted Remain by 57-43 in the referendum, she is now in hock to the only major Northern Irish party that backed Leave. So this debate too will he skewed one way because of the reliance on one party. It gives them grossly disproportionate power over an issue that affects the whole of the UK and the whole of Ireland, the consequences for whom have been scandalously ignored by our government.
I have seen the DUP up close many times when working as part of Tony Blair’s team in the peace process. They are tough minded. They drive a very hard bargain. They will have noticed, as have the EU leaders by the way, how May, far from being strong and stable, goes all weak and wobbly under pressure. They will apply that pressure for all it is worth. And they start with the very big advantage of knowing that she is desperate, just desperate, to cling to power. They are in a very strong position. She, on this as on so much else, is not. She is weakened, diminished, done.
She can limp on. But her entire premiership is coming to be defined as a story of one person putting their own interest and survival ahead of the country’s needs. She became PM by shrinking to the back during the referendum then surging forward as a Brexiteer when the chance of the crown came. She opted for Hard Brexit and the threat to our economy posed by leaving the single market not because it is the right thing for Britain but because it was the best way of keeping her bastards quiet and – so she thought – hoovering up UKIP votes. She called an election not because the country needed one but because she saw the chance to get herself a landslide and pack Parliament full of Hard Brexit Tories who would back any deal she got or failed to get. And when it went catastrophically wrong she leapt into the first lifeboat available not because it is the right deal for the country but because it is the only way she could see at that moment to keep herself afloat.
The future of the country is now the plaything not merely of one party but of one woman’s determination to cling on to its leadership. Thatcher and Major were giants by comparison. The casual placing at risk of their achievements is shameful as well as dangerous. John Major didn’t quite say so when he intervened this week. He is, after all, very good at understatement, oh yes. But it is what he meant. And he is right.