Theresa May likes her walking holidays. She reportedly decided to call last year’s general election on one such venture in Snowdonia. She may not have visited her other favourite (the Swiss Alps) this year because it seems as though she is there already- climbing a huge mountain, with little grip, and rather a big crevasse on the other side.
The legacy that any new Prime Minister inherits from their predecessor has a huge bearing on how they will ultimately be remembered. The mess May has inherited has few parallels – the country is still reeling from the effects of the financial crisis, social divisions are deep and we face the biggest administrative task since the war to boot.
The mess May has inherited has few parallels
The promises made by Vote Leave, which she chose to make her own, are the most toxic legacy of them all. Vote Leave and the Conservative Party have promised an inconsistent triad of policies – leave the single market, leave the customs union and avoid additional physical infrastructure on the Irish border or a border in the Irish Sea. This is the root of all the mayhem we have seen in recent weeks.
The Chequers proposals are an attempt to get out of this jam. For now, the illusion that all three promises can be kept is being maintained through the complicated ‘facilitated customs agreement’, under which the UK would collect EU tariffs and then reallocate the money back to Brussels – but the assumption across Westminster is that those plans will get the boot from Brussels and that some form of customs union will be agreed.
The explosive reaction to the Chequers plan, and the fact that hindsight is 20:20, means many of the Prime Minister’s previous decisions suddenly make some sense. The desire to avoid or delay the day of reckoning with backbenchers who think the inconsistent triad can be upheld is the story of the past two years – from the attempt to stop parliament having any say over the Brexit process, to the decision to call a snap general election and the endless attempts to fudge the issue and kick the can down the road in its aftermath.
The reckoning has now arrived. David Davis and Boris Johnson’s resignations suggest that the Tories are now irrevocably split; between former Remainers who broadly welcome the Chequers proposals, Brexiteers who say we just have to leave and worry about the future relationship later, and Brexiteers who are prepared to sink Mrs May’s proposals. The fact that neither Davis, Johnson nor Eurosceptic backbenchers can come up with their own workable proposals is almost beside the point. The Tories’ civil war over Europe, which has been rumbling on since Margret Thatcher’s day, may now be decisively won by one side or the other.
There’s a chance that the chaos and splits at the top could lead to May giving fewer concessions to Brussels. The mood music from the Commission in the immediate aftermath of Chequers was cautious optimism, accompanied by a clear message that many of the proposals may prove difficult to implement. Since the resignations, Brussels has gone into submarine mode – saying as little as possible to ensure May isn’t toppled. Since there is so little time left for negotiations, the EU’s main focus is secure a transition period with a ‘backstop’ solution for the Irish border, avoid no deal and push the rest of the detail into the transition period.
And when this is all, hopefully, wrapped up and the struggling PM has finally reached the summit, she has to look over the other side. It’s not pretty. Indeed, there are very few ways that she can get down unscathed and secure a safe landing.
The mood music from the Commission in the immediate aftermath of Chequers was cautious optimism
The reason for this lies in the most serious mistake Theresa May has made as Prime Minister – and it has nothing to do the Brexit talks or the calling of the general election. Since the crash, no party has been in the sweet spot of being trusted to manage the economy effectively and deliver a more compassionate society, and this explains why no single party has won a comfortable majority in parliament since 2005. Before the election, the Tories clocked up 20 point poll leads because voters largely believed that May was a very different type of Tory, which was crystallised by her rhetoric about ‘burning injustices’. When given the chance to put the flesh on some bones of this in an election manifesto, we instead got the dementia tax, fox hunting and proposals to take away free school lunches rather than anything that was positive.
With the onset of a hung parliament, it has become clear that any Brexit option would be extremely difficult to get through parliament. No option is supported by a majority of MPs, and any deal looks doomed even though, legally, the only alternative to leaving with a deal is to have no deal. Labour is guaranteed to whip its MPs to vote against whatever is proposed with the hope that it would trigger a general election, while it looks like enough Tory backbenchers are so ideologically opposed to the Chequers plan that they would be willing to risk an election. Whatever May brings back is extremely likely to be voted down. This could trigger a second referendum, an election, a frantic new round of negotiations, a fudge which pushes the substantive issues into the transition or no deal – but as this is Brexit, a fudge is most likely.
Fasten your belts because this whole thing will just go on, and on, and on. The tragedy is not that our GDP will be a bit smaller and our voice on the international stage will be slightly quieter, but that the real issues facing Britain will continue to be overlooked.