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Trust her? I wouldn’t (2)

19/04/2017

It seems that the UK premier Theresa May is not only untrustworthy – see my earlier post Trust her? I wouldn’t – but politically opportunistic and lacking in foresight to boot. Hardly the marks of a stateswoman. Angela Merkel she ain’t.

After repeatedly assuring the public, and even her cabinet colleagues (most of whom appear to have been taken completely by surprise), that there would be no general election for the next three years, she now has the nerve to call one for 8 June – just seven weeks from now. This is untrustworthy.

Of course, it’s every prime minister’s prerogative to call elections when it suits him or her – and current opinion polls suggest May’s Conservative party could emerge with a even larger parliamentary majority. But thanks to the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system (which ensures that one party can govern even with a minority of the popular vote) the Tories already have a large lead in the House of Commons, a fairly comfortable cushion by British standards. So you start looking round for more convincing reasons to call an election right now – and they aren’t hard to find:

(1) What is still the main opposition party, Labour, is in utter turmoil. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn does not enjoy broad support among its MPs, and the party is split between left-wing (principled socialist) and right-wing (throw-in-the-towel crypto-capitalist) factions. If May had waited till 2020 – as she told everyone she would – Labour might just have had time to get its act together, if necessary by replacing Corbyn with a more charismatic and unifying figure. The Conservatives are not exactly popular, but the opposition to them is fatally divided. By calling an election now, May can postpone the problem till much later – and perhaps, if Brexit proves a disaster for the UK (as many think it will), elegantly bow out as leader and dump the whole thing in her hapless successor’s lap.

(2) Not all Conservative MPs are staunch fans of Brexit – for that matter, May wasn’t either, until becoming one proved politically expedient. If she had waited till 2020, the reality of Brexit might have eroded support for it even within her own party – not a risk she could afford to take.

(3) According to the Brexit timetable, a final agreement with the European Union must be reached by early 2019 – a year before the next election would otherwise have had to take place. If Brexit proves a disaster, the knives might well be out for the Conservative party – and for Theresa May as the arch-culprit. By calling an election now, in the hope of increasing her majority before anyone (including May herself) has any idea what Brexit will actually entail, she will create a three-year interval (until 2022, when a new election will again have to be held) in which things can perhaps settle down. A week is a long time in politics, and three years is eternity.

(4) May has of course already been accused of sacrificing her country’s future to her party’s and her own narrow interests – just as her predecessor David Cameron did by allowing a Brexit referendum in the first place. If, as a supporter of the ‘Remain’ camp, she had had the good grace to resign along with Cameron in the wake of the vote, she might have emerged from this with some shreds of dignity – but no longer. Of course, since the electorate tends not to like politicians who so brazenly put their personal interests first – especially if this happens twice in succession and the same party is to blame – Downing Street and leading Conservatives have indignantly rejected these accusations of opportunism. Methinks they do protest too much.

(5) You can’t help wondering what has actually changed in the Brexit scenario to make Theresa May perform her sudden U-turn. It has always been known that the deadline for an agreement under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon would be two years after it was invoked; and – true to her word for once! – May invoked it three weeks ago. Has the undoubted problem – for the Conservative party – of having to conduct an electoral campaign almost as soon as the irrevocable truth about Brexit becomes known only now dawned on her, or her advisers? If so, no-one has been thinking very deeply about all this – and that’s lack of foresight.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that this bunch are simply muddling through, and making up the rules as they go along (so much for their much-vaunted ‘strategy’). They simply have no idea what to expect, or what to do – which is hardly surprising, since the EU holds all the cards. The best deal that May keeps on saying she’ll get for Britain in the forthcoming negotiations will be whatever Brussels magnanimously chooses to concede. By 2019 that may not be very much at all – which is why calling an election now may seem preferable to waiting for the statutory three years. It surely won’t help the UK; but – at least temporarily – it will help the Conservative party, and Theresa May’s political career.

When it became clear that Brexit really was inevitable, and that ‘divorce proceedings’ would soon be under way, the EU rapidly assembled a competent team of negotiators drawn from several of its member states. Around the same time it leaked out that London does not in fact have more than a handful of officials with the requisite knowledge and experience of European affairs to ‘fight Britain’s corner’; and, not surprisingly, these have tended to be people who think Brexit is a very bad idea. None of that is going to change, whether the election is held now or in three years’ time. One way or another, Britain will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, by bonds of its own making.

A final straw in the wind, this time from Denmark, which joined the EU back in 1973, along with the UK and Ireland – the first ‘enlargement’ of the Union since it was first established as the European Economic Community (EEC) in the late 1950s. Although Denmark has never been quite as ambiguous about EU membership as Britain, its Nordic neighbours have been a lot more hesitant: Sweden and Finland only joined in 1995; Norway has twice voted not to; Iceland withdrew its application after just four years; Denmark’s dependency the Faroe Islands has never joined; and its other dependency Greenland left in 1985 after a referendum three years earlier. Like Britain, Denmark has been granted a theoretically permanent exemption from the requirement that member states adopt the euro as their currency; and anti-EU sentiment has been running high there, with strong support for a nationalistic anti-immigrant party. In short, Denmark is one of the countries perhaps most likely to follow the Brexit suit.

Yet just this week the Danish fishing industry announced that it would call on Brussels to back the Danish fleet’s continued right to catch fish in British waters even after the UK leaves the EU. This invocation of its rights as an EU member state may seem somewhat hypocritical, given its track record; the announcement has not come from the government, but from a professional body; and the industry claims that its ‘rights’ to fish in British waters in fact go back many centuries, long before anyone had ever heard of the EU. But the Danes have support from other EU countries with a strong fishing sector, including Holland and Spain. The British fishing industry, on the other hand, has said it is determined to keep ‘foreign’ boats out of ‘its’ waters. Are we due for a farcical repeat of the infamous ‘cod wars’ that raged between Britain and Iceland from the 1950s to the 1970s, with Royal Navy warships firing on fishing vessels?

The battle lines are thus being drawn, and EU member states – even those, like Denmark, that are least convinced about the benefits of membership – are evidently starting to realise that there is much to be gained from cooperation. A united front against the common enemy; and right now the common enemy is Britain.

Deep down, given her stance during the Brexit referendum campaign, Theresa May surely agrees; but, for purely personal and political reasons, she has deserted to the opposite camp. Much good may it do her.

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