Why our Prime Minister is in bad company
A few weeks ago, as France was facing the possibility of a Presidential election run-off between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon, I was driving south down the A7 autoroute, listening to one of those seemingly interminable political debates that French radio does so well. It was almost certainly France Inter, my election radio station of choice these past few weeks.
British radio discussions of politics tend to involve one journalist on the station’s payroll respectfully chatting with journalists on someone else’s payroll, usually newspapers, regurgitating things they have read or written that morning. It passes the time on long drives to Burnley, I guess, but not without a desire for Danny Baker or a live early kick off to come on.
French radio also get the occasional rentahack, but usually outnumbered by academics, advisors and, of course, philosophers. The French love their philosophers in a way that we tend to sneer at anyone who dares to describe themselves as such. It was one such philosopher who made an observation that barely seemed to raise a murmur among his fellow panellists, but which had me in a state of shock that the words had passed his lips in the context they did.
He was explaining the Melenchon rise, alongside the certainty of Le Pen making the second round, saying it was not just about the extremes becoming more attractive in the populist era, but also that people the world over seemed to be gravitating towards leaders who defined themselves as strong, authoritarian even. And so he listed the usual suspects … Trump, Putin, Xi, Erdogan … but then added, barely a comma-sized breath between Erdogan and them, ‘Modi en Inde, Theresa May au Royaume Uni …’ And I thought, wow, is that how we are seen? Even though it was just one random philosopher, about whom I know absolutely nothing, it kind of took me aback.
Happily, Melenchon, who by the way is wrongly described as France’s Jeremy Corbyn – he is well to the left of the Labour leader – did not progress, and France did not face the choice of two extremes, but instead a choice between one well-known, dynastic extreme, and what might be termed the radical centre offered by Emmanuel Macron.
So then to the one television debate between the two final contenders, where Macron kept his cool, and showed a better grasp of detail, in the face of some pretty withering sarcasm and nastiness, Le Pen’s face becoming more and more like her father’s as the debate went on. But she too said something that took me aback, for what it said about Britain.
One of the characteristics of ‘strong man leadership’ is that the strong men in question, Trump, Putin and Xi especially, see the world as theirs to carve up between them. Other states and their interests become pawns in the bigger games they play. Hence Trump’s fascination with Putin. Hence Putin’s attempts to undermine the EU or indeed any international body that might act as a brake on his desire to reassert Russian power in whatever way he chooses, from invading a country to taking off his shirt while riding a horse. Hence the clear desire of both Trump and Putin for Le Pen to win.
In the debate she said that as a ‘patriot’ – she means far-right nationalist of course, but these guys do like to steal the best words if they can – she was better placed than the inexperienced, internationalist Macron to deal with the emerging new world order … ‘to talk about Russia with Putin, to talk about the US with Trump, to talk about Great Britain with Theresa May…’ and again, I felt a little wince of shame that our Hard Brexit Prime Minister is now lumped in with those two by a neo-fascist trying to put herself on the same level.
I am not, before Iain Dale responds with a diary jibe, saying May is anything like as bad as Le Pen. But I am saying that the Brexit Britain she is leading has become something of a poster boy for the nationalists, and that underlines just how far May has travelled since beginning her June 24 journey from soft Remainer to hard Brexiteer on steroids; from quiet, unassuming, get on with the job Home Secretary, to ‘this is my election and I don’t want anyone else involved’ UKIP-gobbling Prime Minister and party leader.
There was something a tad formulaic and unenthusiastic about Number 10’s immediate response to Macron’s win. ‘The Prime Minister warmly congratulates President-elect Macron on his election success. France is one of our closest allies and we look forward to working with the new President on a wide range of shared priorities.’
Having met them both, I am not persuaded there will be much of that famed and indefinable ‘chemistry’ that often comes to define bilateral relations between countries and their leaders. Macron is a charmer, who oozes self-confidence that thankfully stops the right side of arrogance. May doesn’t really do small talk, and, as is clear from her avoid-the-people election campaign, is not exactly at home with circumstances she cannot immediately control.
Macron’s rise to power has been one of the most remarkable political success stories of modern times, showing boldness, courage, the ability to innovate and inspire sufficient to go from near nothing to the presidency in a year.
May became Prime Minister on the back of her predecessor’s catastrophic errors, and as a result of a woeful field of opponents, and is planning on staying as Prime Minister by exploiting her current opponents’ weaknesses every bit as much as her own strengths.
But the main difference that will come between them is their contrasting visions on Europe. Macron might well have seen May’s exploitation of the briefing around her famed dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker as smart electoral politics; but he will have been deeply unimpressed that she was prepared to put that ahead of long-term relations and the outcome of the Brexit negotiations in which he is now a key player.
Macron has already shown, in his willingness to break from the Socialist Party, and tell former colleagues they will have to join his En Marche! ticket to have any chance of becoming part of his government, that he can be a very tough operator. He will take a tough approach to Brexit, because he has seen what little regard May and her team are paying to the broader consequences of Brexit for the rest of the EU of which, he will remind her, we remain for the time being a member.
Every nation state protects its own interests. That goes for the 27 remaining members of the EU every bit as much as the one that is leaving. And as was clear from Macron’s campaign, he believes in France being a big player in a reformed European Union, and because he believes in it, he refused to compromise on that in the way he campaigned to become president. Bold. Gutsy. Compare and contrast May’s submarine rise to the premiership, on the back of laying low during the referendum, then moving like the wind and with the wind when the opportunity arose. Again, smart short-term politics. But with Macron in France, and Angela Merkel in Germany – or Martin Schulz in the unlikely event he replaces her – she will find the long-term Brexit chessboard just became a lot more complicated, and a lot harder to play.
The Brextremist papers will lap up every slight, every whack at any Johnny Foreigner who dares to suggest the UK should not have exactly what it wants and when it wants it. In the real world, of the most complex negotiation any British Prime Minister has had to undertake, she vows to be ‘bloody difficult’. She won’t be alone. And she will find that the support of nationalist newspapers here and far right politicians elsewhere will not be a match for the political weight of leaders prepared to fight for what they really believe in.