In defence of Mrs May

BY William Wellesley   /  21 March 2019

I am no natural supporter of Theresa May. I hail from a far more liberal tradition within the Conservative Party and I agree with Paul Goodman, the Brexit leaning editor of Conservative Home, that she represents the muddled middle. I can list the mistakes she made in the early stages of the Brexit negotiations as well as anyone else – triggering article 50 too early, agreeing to the EU’s timetable, not preparing sufficiently for no deal and, most of all, losing the Election. But as people say in business: “We are where we are” and, for the life of me, I can’t see what she could have done in the last few months to make this wretched situation any better. She is hemmed in by ideologues and opportunists prepared to damage the country for their own beliefs or their own ends and, unwise as last night’s speech might prove to be, I couldn’t disagree with much of the substance.

If I were an MP, I would have voted against her deal the first time round. I am not sure any commentator is qualified to opine on whether she could have got more safeguards over the backstop in the initial deal but a signal clearly needed to be sent to the EU to enable more negotiation. The problem is that the message was diluted by the actions of Conservative hard Europhiles and damaged egos yearning for the place in the sun they enjoyed under the last leadership. It was made abundantly clear to the EU that we would never deliberately leave without a deal and she was sent into bat with the metaphorical broken bat (but broken this time by the team, not the Captain).

Maybe with a clearer message, she could have got more from the EU. No one knows. Certainly there were errors of process in the handling of the second vote. (Anyone who has worked all night on any commercial negotiations will recognize the dysfunctionality behind Geoffrey Cox’s unhelpful legal advice.) But, with the hand she had to play, she probably played it as well as she could.

So now we stand at a fork in the road with all possible paths seeming to lead to different types of perdition: Brexit effectively being blocked, No deal happening by accident and/or a Marxist government coming to power. To me, the villains are clear and I reserve my greatest anger for the opportunists and the damaged egos rather than the deluded.

Oppositions are by definition opportunistic in their approach but, unprecedented as the current situation is, I struggle to think that a responsible opposition should be prepared to tip the country off a cliff edge for its own gain when the withdrawal agreement is so close to their own position. After all, how can Labour complain that we could trapped in a customs union when their own policy is a permanent customs union? Driven by hard left ideologues, who for the first time can really smell power, and unreconciled remainers, who will not admit to wanting to stop Brexit at all costs, Labour figures sanctimoniously complain of the Prime Ministers’ inflexibility and incompetence when she has negotiated a deal that they should, by their own criteria, unhesitatingly endorse.

My least favourite opportunists, and I speak as a remain voter, are the Conservative Party’s collection of Europhiles and damaged egos. Give me Anna Soubry or Ken Clarke any day of the week – they say what they think and in the latter case he was prepared to sacrifice party leadership three times for his beliefs. Contrast this with Dominic Grieve’s support for Theresa May’s position at the General Election and his subsequent change of course when her dominance was smashed and the parliamentary arithmetic made it possible for him to stop Brexit.

The behavior of many prominent Cameron-era liberal Tories also grates. Surely these people knew that their amendments, to give parliament control and to prevent no deal, would badly undermine May’s negotiating position? Surely they could have waited or at least made their views and likely future actions plain with some degree of discretion? It is hard not to feel that they acted from outrage at their loss of control of the party, rather than from a cool assessment of how to get the best out of the situation.

And then we have the irreconcilable members of the ERG sincere in their (I believe wrong) beliefs but deluded in their tactics. After hours of conversation with an ERG friend of mine, he has never once explained a credible chain of events which might lead to the no deal outcome he desires. All he can really manage is the statement that rejecting the deal is the first step in a long journey: not exactly a good plan on which to base one’s actions.

The ERG are badly wrong in thinking the journey will end anywhere near their desired destination. But, my personal anger is directed at those who criticize the Prime Minister’s inflexibility, failure to compromise and incompetence when they are opportunistically rejecting a deal that they should support on the basis of their past public statements. She has made mistakes, she has misjudged situations and she has mishandled people but she has acted with integrity and with concern for the public good.


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