Vot­ers are treated as chil­dren

Theresa May, like Jeremy Cor­byn, has ut­terly failed to be ‘straight with peo­ple’

The Observer - - News -

Per­hapsin your weaker mo­ments you feel for Theresa May. She main­tains an ad­mirable com­po­sure when as­sailed by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Ar­ron Banks, priv­i­leged louts, who would long ago have been on an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour or­ders if they had been born on coun­cil es­tates. She has a plan for Bri­tain’s fu­ture: a hu­mil­i­at­ing plan that will throw peo­ple out of work and leave us at the mercy of laws we have no say in draft­ing. But when Labour and the Tory right have no plan, she can seem, in the ir­ri­tat­ing words of her ad­mir­ers, “the only grownup in the room”. If you have twinges of sym­pa­thy, please crush them. The “grownup” cliche en­cap­su­lates ev­ery­thing that is wrong with her premier­ship. For if she is the grownup, the vot­ers are the chil­dren who must be pro­tected from re­al­ity so they can sleep eas­ily in their beds.

The in­fan­til­is­ing of the Bri­tish stopped for a mo­ment last week when the govern­ment be­lat­edly man­aged a “there is no Fa­ther Christ­mas” mo­ment. The Trea­sury said that Bri­tain would be worse off un­der any form of Brexit.

The ad­mis­sion that May’s was the first ad­min­is­tra­tion in Bri­tish his­tory to de­lib­er­ately make the coun­try poorer was a small ad­vance. For, ever since the ref­er­en­dum, May has failed in her duty to state the ob­vi­ous.

So many on the right re­veal their van­ity and in­se­cu­rity by claim­ing Churchill’s man­tle. Say what you like about the old brute’s poli­cies against the sub­ju­gated peo­ples of the em­pire, he had the hon­esty to tell the Com­mons in 1940 that he had noth­ing to “of­fer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. By con­trast, his sup­posed im­i­ta­tors promised us the im­pos­si­ble: a no-sweat Brexit, with­out one tear shed or drop of blood spilt. When May said she wanted to be “straight with peo­ple” and face up to the “hard facts” of Brexit, the only warn­ing she could ut­ter was the hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate ba­nal­ity that leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket will mean the UK and EU en­joy less ac­cess to each other’s mar­kets. No more straight or fac­tual was her as­ser­tion, up­held un­til Septem­ber 2017, that no deal was “bet­ter than a bad deal”.

May’s govern­ment was not op­posed to the Brexit right. She did not come into of­fice and lay out the hard choices it had ducked. For two years, she said next to noth­ing to con­tra­dict the slo­gans of Johnson, Farage and Banks. The dis­hon­esty ought to tem­per your will­ing­ness to be­lieve the rightwing voices who now in­sist that mil­lions who voted to leave voted to stop EU in­ter­fer­ence or con­trol im­mi­gra­tion did not care about the eco­nomic con­se­quences. They cer­tainly wor­ried about sovereignty and mi­gra­tion, but the men who led them on as­sured them they could have it all and the econ­omy would look after it­self.

Speak­ing of im­mi­gra­tion, Sa­jid Javid, the home sec­re­tary, told par­lia­ment last week that he has de­layed pub­lish­ing the govern­ment’s plans on the fu­ture of the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem yet again. We’ve waited most of 2018 for them and may not see them before the Com­mons votes on May’s Brexit deal. The­o­ries abound on why the govern­ment won’t be “straight with peo­ple”. The Home Of­fice may want to hide the eco­nomic con­se­quences of May’s tough line. Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes’s aca­demic work es­ti­mates that May’s re­stric­tions on mi­gra­tion alone will lead to a 1.4% to 1.8% fall in GDP.

Poll­sters are not­ing, mean­while, that moth­ers of young chil­dren are among the Leave vot­ers most likely to switch to Re­main as they see how the loss of Euro­pean work­ers is harm­ing the NHS and schools. Per­haps the govern­ment does not want the elec­torate to know the true cost of May’s crack­down.

Or per­haps there will be no crack­down worth men­tion­ing. Yvette Cooper, John Wood­cock and other cen­tre-left politi­cians on the home af­fairs select com­mit­tee be­lieve the ru­mours that Javid is fight­ing May to en­sure busi­ness has enough mi­grant work­ers once we leave. If he is, and if he wins, what will have been the point of the im­mi­gra­tion “de­bate”? The govern­ment will just have re­placed EU mi­grants with mi­grants from the rest of the world, trashed the econ­omy and Bri­tain’s stand­ing in the world in the process, and re­moved the rights of the Bri­tish to live, work and love where they choose in the EU for good mea­sure.

A cri­sis of trust in pol­i­tics is com­ing. May is mak­ing the same mis­take as David Cameron. He spent years den­i­grat­ing the EU and al­ly­ing with its creepi­est politi­cians and then be­lieved he could pirou­ette on his Ox­ford brogues and in­struct the pub­lic to vote Re­main in 2016. May did noth­ing to com­bat the hard-right nar­ra­tive that no deal was no big deal for 18 months and now believes she can warn of a catas­tro­phe and per­suade the pub­lic to force their rep­re­sen­ta­tives to sup­port her – just like that.

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the op­po­si­tion would ex­pose the govern­ment’s eva­sions. But we have no op­po­si­tion. Con­ser­va­tive lead­ers do not tell the truth about the eco­nomic con­se­quences of leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket. Labour’s lead­ers don’t en­lighten us ei­ther. In­stead, they give us a lie as shame­less as any­thing Johnson put on the side of a bus and pre­tend we can have a jobs-first Brexit. Equally, May is de­ter­mined that free­dom of move­ment must stop at all costs. As is the sup­posed in­ter­na­tion­al­ist Jeremy Cor­byn. Nei­ther the govern­ment nor the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion has be­gun to pre­pare the elec­torate for hard choices or found it in them­selves to ad­mit that hard choices ex­ist. They have put main­tain­ing their ram­shackle coali­tions above ba­sic truth-telling.

Politi­cians play with fire at their and our peril. They have so low­ered the bar of pub­lic life that one day a Bri­tish Trump will skip over it with ease. If “the only grownups in the room” treat the vot­ers like chil­dren for long enough, they will even­tu­ally throw a tantrum.

Ever since the ref­er­en­dum, the prime min­is­ter has failed in her duty to state the ob­vi­ous

Pho­to­graph by Ce­cil Beaton/Getty

Win­ston Churchill in Down­ing Street in 1940.


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