It was Theresa May’s overwhelming armada of support in the parliamentary Conservative Party that made her Prime Minister. Had her coalition of MPs not been so broad and so deep she may have found herself facing arch-Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom in a run-off for the votes of Conservative members. It’s likely May would have won anyway – likely, but not inevitable. Leadsom herself has stated that it was the enormous margin by which May led her amongst their colleagues that finally pushed her out of the race. And Leadsom’s campaign manager still maintains that were they to have made it onto a ballot, his candidate would have stood a good chance of grabbing the prize. So May has the – not always early or enthusiastic – support of her colleagues in Parliament to thank for her position today. But some of those who flocked to May as a port in the storm, at the last minute, are feeling a tinge of buyer’s remorse this morning.
May’s coalition in her party ran from moderate Leave supporters, through ‘on balance’ politicians like May herself, all the way to ardent Remainers who hoped she (one of their own, in name at least) might find some way to disregard the vote. It is that last category of supporters who feel most aggrieved today. They believed that May would find them a way out of what they regard as a nightmare – and they were excited and enthused by the Prime Minister’s secret deal with Nissan, which many read as a sign that we would not be leaving the single market. But Theresa May has no intention of blocking Brexit and has chosen, firmly, to chart a course that gives the British people the most decisive ‘out’ of the EU possible.
Many Tory Remainers believe the reasoning for this betrayal of their hopes and expectations is both clear and cynical. May might have vanquished Leadsom but the hordes of party members and vocal, green-tied MPs live on. Farage still stalks the airwaves and with no serviceable opposition to her Left, the Prime Minister has chosen to fold to her Right. This is why so many Tory MPs are furious with Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party – they needed a strong Left to exert balancing pressure on their Leader. In the absence of such a countervailing force liberal Tories see May being cowed by the hard-Right and they are enraged by what looks to them like a craven acceptance of that fate.
On the other hand, Brexiteers can’t believe their luck. They were suspicious of May – thus their desperation to have a Brexit candidate (by the end, any Brexit candidate) in the Leadership election. Cautious, sober and a public (if unenthusiastic) supporter of Remain, May was perceived by many on the Leave side as a direct and existential threat to the success of their project. Yes, several of her longstanding aides had held roles in the Leave campaign. And yes, she was clear from day one that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But she wasn’t – in any regard – one of them.
But the agenda that May outlined in her speech yesterday – exiting the EU, exiting the single market, potential whole or partial exiting of the customs union and the end of European judicial jurisdiction – is more radical than many of its architects dared to hope. It represents a complete break with the project of the European Union. Brexit – it turns out – really does mean Brexit.
Those close to the Prime Minister look on both these perspectives – outraged Remainers and startled Leavers alike – with bemused disdain. Theresa May’s support for the EU was always conditional, they say, and never ideological. She weighed the negatives and the positives and came to a conclusion. The negatives of continued membership are now much heavier than they used to be – weighted down by the simple but important fact that leaving is the settled will of the British people. She is not, therefore, betraying a previous position (or really even reneging on it) but is answering a different question to the one posed in June. It is not, now, “Should Britain remain a member of the European Union?” it is “How best can Britain leave the European Union?”.
Why hasn’t she decided that Britain should try to achieve some sort of fudge? Well, for a start, it isn’t clear that one is available. The leaders of the EU – both state by state and in the central bureaucracy – have been reasonably clear that Britain cannot pick and choose the parts of membership we want while disregarding the duties and obligations expected of others. We can’t be in the single market but have control of our borders. Of course, May could ask for that anyway. But to do so would a) be to very publicly ignore the express will and policy of her negotiating partners b) risk setting herself and the UK up for a failure that could badly damage our economic credibility and c) send Brexit voters the dangerous message that a deal was about to be done that would ignore their concerns about mass migration. Far better, so the Prime Minister believes, to be clear with the British people about what is – and what is not – achievable given the realities of our position.
But there is another, more positive, rationale at play here too. Yes, Brexit brings risks and challenges. But it brings huge potential opportunities too. New trade deals, increased state aid to strategic industries, innovation around tax and corporate governance; all of which depend on a firm break with the single market. A half-measures Brexit would not mean the best of both worlds; it would give us the worst of both. All the regulation would still be in place but Britain would have even less say over it. May believes that the UK can thrive outside the EU but that it needs as much flexibility as possible if it is to do so.
All of which begs the question, why not now? If we’re heading out – fully out – what is there to discuss? Well, May was Home Secretary for almost six years and she understands better than almost anyone else that Britain’s relationship with Europe goes far beyond commerce – defence, intelligence and security are the bedrocks of our alliances. She wants to achieve two things before the good ship Britannia sails away. One, she wants to ensure that co-operation in these areas is safeguarded and (in some places) deepened. Two, she wants to use Europe’s reliance on the UK’s vastly superior intelligence apparatus to extract some specific concessions.
All of which brings us back to that mysterious Nissan letter – in which the car company was reassured that they would not be disadvantaged by Brexit. Theresa May doesn’t want the British economy to be tied down by the single market. But she does want particular industries – especially those with complex supply chains, such as car manufacturers – to be given special access to the customs union at least. That’s the deal she wants to do, a relatively straightforward one that could be in place by 2019. To get it she is prepared to use the carrot of continued intelligence co-operation as well as the big stick of threatening to turn the UK into Europe’s Hong Kong.
No-one knows whether this strategy will work. But most people would agree that Admiral Theresa charts a clearer course than Captain Cameron (retired) usually managed. Perhaps the British people weren’t so foolish to mutiny after all.