Does Theresa May have the temperament and inter-personal skills to lead successful Brexit negotiations, asks Steve Beauchampé?
Let’s be optimistic and hope that Theresa May’s attack last Wednesday on the EU for “attempting to interfere in the UK General Election” (a claim she failed to back up with facts) was nothing more than a flagrant political land grab, an attempt to woo any remaining UKIP voters with hostile and aggressive nationalistic rhetoric. Following which – assuming that the Conservatives win on June 8th – May will speak a decidedly more conciliatory and diplomatic language, ditch the confrontation and commence Brexit negotiations in a mature and stateswomanlike manner. Or then again perhaps she won’t.
Because we don’t have to look far for reasons to believe that the Prime Minister might be a potentially toxic mixture of intensely controlling, highly secretive, overly sensitive and with a touch of the feudal monarch about her. There’s her unwillingness to campaign using little apart from slogans, to debate live with rival party leaders, to encounter voters other than pre-vetted Conservative Party members or to place herself in anything less than totally managed and protected situations.
There is surely more to all this than a natural awkwardness or introspection, of being uncomfortable around people; it is about avoiding scrutiny and challenge, it indicates a lack of self-confidence, an inability to think on your feet. And it might also display a degree of paranoia.
Let’s rewind a year and remember May’s near invisibility during the EU referendum campaign. Nominally she was on the Remain side, but you’d hardly have noticed. Whilst Cameron and Osborne, Boris, Gove and Duncan-Smug were arguing it out on television, radio and in the print media every day, Theresa May might as well have been on a three month walking holiday in North Wales, planning her leadership bid (her ambition had been no secret for years) either once Britain had voted Leave or when David Cameron eventually stepped down ahead of the envisaged 2020 General Election. It looks suspiciously as if Theresa May was prepared to risk the country’s future to further her own political ambition.
Once Cameron did resign, May announced her intention to stand with the words: “I’m Theresa May and I think I’m the best person to be Prime Minister of this country.” No reason given, no policies offered, no overarching vision forthcoming. A joke remark maybe, perhaps also the expression of a sense of entitlement.
But there was no Conservative Party leadership contest, merely a coronation, with May anointed before most party members even had the opportunity to hear or scrutinise her policy platform or personal suitability for the post, let alone approve it. Rivals quickly fell by the wayside, with the mildly stubborn Andrea Leadsom’s bid terminated after she was allegedly goaded by the Tory hierarchy into making an unwarranted personal remark about May.
Having filled her Cabinet with Brexiteers and sundry other right wingers, Theresa May’s most memorable contributions to the remainder of 2016 were her ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ statement (oratory is not a strong point with Theresa May) and her revelation to October’s Conservative Party annual conference that the UK would leave both the Single Market and Customs Union as well as end the free movement of workers, with the formal process of departing the EU commencing by the end of March 2017. None of this had been agreed beforehand by the Cabinet.
The trajectory was unmistakably heading into the heart of UKIP territory, and the almost 3.9m votes which that party garnered in 2015; votes that were wasted then, having resulted in the election of just a single MP, but which might well be seat-winning or seat-saving votes for the Conservatives in 2017. Political opportunism no doubt, but a dangerous and divisive approach to Britain’s EU departure which could threaten living standards and economic wellbeing of the country for as far ahead as can reasonably be projected. But there was more, and it is darker.
When the High Court ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, had the authority to determine when Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which commences our exiting the EU, could be invoked, May was furious, ordering a government challenge in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, she permitted Justice Secretary Liz Truss to rail against the judges and failed to intervene to de-escalate tensions both when a Daily Mail front page headline called those judges “Enemies of the People” and when a tirade of online abuse was directed against Gina Miller, who had brought the case.
After government defeat in the Supreme Court, May watched the subsequent House of Lords debate on the Article 50 Bill, staring at Peers from the steps of the royal throne.
As regards the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May has made it clear that she will conduct them herself. She has resisted every attempt by Parliament to have a meaningful say over the UK’s negotiating position, insisting that she enjoy the ability to negotiate in private whatever terms she chooses (including her self-imposed and not-agreed-by-anyone-else red lines), reluctantly accepting that Parliament will be offered a simple take it or leave it vote once the talks are completed. She perhaps needs to undertake some basic preparatory work because although she insists that the negotiations will be private, EU transparency rules require that details of the talks will be placed in the public arena more or less concurrent with their taking place.
All this amid reports of a grim atmosphere at No 10 (one source told the Financial Times that under May’s regime the mood had turned from “day to night”) and the recent resignations of a string of the Prime Minister’s political advisers and aids. Her decision to call the General Election was so unexpected that it left an ill-prepared Conservative Party with no candidates in place in the key marginal seats on their target list and scrambling around for policies to campaign on. After calling the election to, as she put it, “end division at Westminster” (division,..well that’s the consequence of a Parliament that reflects differing views and opinions) Theresa May has now taken to campaigning on occasions using just her name and not that of the Conservative Party.
Having stolen UKIP’s mantle (move much further to the right and the BNP might start to get nervous) Theresa May now seems to be taking cues from US President Donald Trump. Yes there were some leaks against her from EU officials, but then Whitehall also regularly leaks to its political advantage. But Theresa May’s speech outside No. 10 last week was designed to create the illusion of shady foreigners out to get Britain, before claiming that only she can save the country from them. Works every time!
May’s rage against the Brussels machine came only a day after she had revelled in claiming that the next person to find out that she was “a bloody difficult woman” would be European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Although I suspect that she’ll quickly find out that the other 27 EU heads of state and their negotiators can be even more “bloody difficult” should Britain’s attitude be to go looking for a punch up.
And if she continues on a confrontational course, Theresa May might now learn that the election of the strongly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron as French President will make her already difficult task just that little bit tougher.
By June 9th it will be almost a year since the EU Referendum. During that time the UK has done little other than invoke Article 50 and bicker amongst itself about what it voted for. It has still to produce anything apart from the most general indication of its aims that would help to frame the negotiations. And it clearly has little notion as to the complexity, cost and implications of untangling itself from the EU, or of how weak a position it is now in.
Little wonder that many in Brussels are becoming tired with Britain, with its accusations and insults and with our Prime Minster’s testy approach when goodwill, reciprocity and a modicum of inter-personal skills might bring far greater rewards.
Such a bellicose and bunker-like attitude towards the most important negotiations this country has faced in decades, if not centuries, might well bring Theresa May a substantial General Election victory. Yet the country that she is creating has deepening political fissures, geographically and generationally, that both the forthcoming election and the Prime Minster’s anti-consensual and seemingly joyless leadership style appear to be exacerbating. It is a deeply unedifying spectacle. Given all of the above, do I really want to give Theresa May a mandate to negotiate my country’s future?