The Scottish Mail on Sunday
The Prime Minister has learned a very hard lesson. To save our country from catastrophe, she MUST now listen
THE giant aftershocks of the EU referendum continue to run through British politics, shaking pillars that once seemed wholly firm, demolishing walls that once seemed safe. This momentous and disturbing Election forces us to ponder hard about where we should now turn.
While Thursday’s vote was not a second referendum, it has greatly altered the conditions in which we approach negotiations on leaving the EU, now only a few days away.
The Mail on Sunday has not stood back from this issue. We supported the ‘Remain’ side in the referendum. We then accepted the clear verdict of the people, which was our plain duty as consistent supporters of democracy and the rule of law. We gave our thoughtful backing to Theresa May when, to our surprise, she chose to call an Election.
We thought it was reasonable for her to ask for a mandate on her Brexit policy, the justification she gave for the early Election. We urged her to take this opportunity to broaden her appeal, and to seek to speak for the millions, like us, who had opposed Brexit, accepted the referendum result but still expected their hopes and fears to be taken into account.
Alas, this was an opportunity she rather definitely did not take in a campaign startling for its narrow, dogged nature. She has never yet moved from her mantra of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and her worrying fallback position that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ even though their stiff-necked, chilly implications went against her own better nature.
It was as if she was trying too hard to please the zealots while forgetting to comfort or reassure the great majority of reasonable voters who remain open to workable compromise and recognise that half a loaf is in fact a great deal better than no bread at all.
And then, before she could properly get going, she was swiftly bogged down by the self-inflicted confusion over the ‘dementia tax’ and over pensions, and then by an increasingly nervous and unconvincing performance.
Although she managed to garner more votes than Tony Blair attracted in his 1997 heyday, her campaign was beyond doubt a dismal failure. Perhaps it looked good at the strategy meeting where her tiny knot of advisers decided what to do. But, as the Prime Minister has discovered through hard and bitter experience, you cannot run a country through a cabal. And those advisers, having had all the power, have now taken all responsibility and are gone.
The brutal departure yesterday of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Mrs May’s long-serving political bodyguards and personal thinktank, was symbolic of a revolution. To a great extent, they were the heart of the pre-Election Government and its policy. That Government, and that policy, are finished for good. They were also personally close to and greatly valued by Mrs May. They were her immediate political family. Their loss will be a personal grief to her.
They have gone because, on the eve of Brexit talks and with no clear succession in view, Mrs May cannot go, and so others must suffer publicly on her behalf. She could not save them, much as she wanted to do so. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly how her authority has shrivelled. Mrs May, and her colleagues at the top of the Tory Party, remain in office, but all are utterly transformed. If they are to remain in power as well, and if they are to avoid the now very real danger of a Corbyn government, they are going to have to think very hard and act very cleverly.
Interestingly, the wily and experienced Brexit Secretary David Davis has already wondered aloud if the Government has lost its mandate – if it ever had one – for the so-called hard Brexit, especially leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.
As the dismal results began to trickle in during the small hours of Friday, Mr Davis asked on Sky News whether the Government had now lost that mandate, saying ‘that’s what we put in front of the
She discovered that you can’t rule a country through a cabal Keeping Corbyn out of power is one of the most pressing duties of this Government
The youth vote proved highly effective for Labour…and will do so more and more There can be flexible but strong Brexit negotiations
people, we’ll see by tomorrow whether they’ve accepted that or not. That will be their decision’. It certainly looks as if they have not accepted it. Now what?
There have been suggestions that Mrs May, in the interval which remains to her while the Tory Party decides what to do about the leadership, should be given a Deputy Prime Minister to stand at her side – and also to reconnect her with Cabinet government. Perhaps Mr Davis, a quick thinker who is no stranger to infighting and hard bargaining, would be the best person to fulfil this role.
For the future has to be secured. Failure to get the Government back on course is not an option. Mr Corbyn waits in the wings to take advantage of any such failure. He is still burdened with all the terrible drawbacks that have always made him unfit for office. His electoral success has not made his economic and defence policies any less disastrous, or diminished the shame of his past as an apologist for terrorist movements.
Keeping him out of power is one of the most pressing duties of this Government.
So, while there have been and will be plenty of autopsies of the lost campaign, here we mainly seek to look forward, rather than backwards. And that means a re-evaluation of European policy.
Brexit lay beneath the surface of this Election. After the opening salvoes, it was hardly mentioned. But in practice its after-effects played a huge part. Labour unexpectedly recaptured a large slice of the working-class vote which supported Leave, and many of those who had defected to Ukip.
While Ukip disintegrated, to the point where it may be difficult to reassemble it yet again, Labour gained quite spectacularly in some seats by mobilising the youth and student vote which the Remain campaign so notably failed to motivate a year ago. It was almost as if, having wished too late that they had turned out in June 2016, they turned out instead in June 2017. If there ever were a second referendum, they might swing it for Remain.
Their votes have proved highly effective. It is likely they will keep using them. This is a permanent change in British politics which looks set to benefit Labour more and more in years to come.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionists, supposedly bristling Right-wingers and Brexiteers, are understandably anxious about the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s wide-open border with the Irish Republic.
It is hard to see how this problem can be solved outside the Single Market, without which crossborder traffic into the Republic will suddenly be subject to thousands of time-consuming bureaucratic barriers.
As for the enormous burden of legislation on the planned Great Repeal Bill, incorporating EU laws into English law, the Government simply will not be able to achieve this without placating a Parliament in which it has no Commons majority and no popular mandate with which to overpower the non-Tory majority in the Lords.
We have had a lot of polarising talk about ‘soft Brexit’ and ‘hard Brexit’. But both of these are dismissive expressions, designed to create division rather than move towards civilised compromise.
Here and now we have an opportunity to introduce the idea of ‘open Brexit’, a readiness to negotiate flexibly as well as strongly, searching for lasting and workable solutions which are best for Britain and its people, and for the United Kingdom, rather than designed to please or placate one faction or another.
As the Tories – and their Democratic Unionist allies – seek to remake the Government in the light of last week’s catastrophe, they should note that rigidity and inflexibility do not work well on today’s fast-moving political battlefield. Now is the time for suppleness, quick thinking, and readiness to change our minds when the facts change.
We have had no end of a lesson. If we are prepared to learn from it, it will do us no end of good.