by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2016
Theresa May is pretty much the ideal prime minister for the times we live in. Not because she gives every appearance of being reassuringly tough, shrewd, hard-working and very clearly competent but because she’s no ideologue. And that’s just as well because re-ravelling what Brexit unravels will not just define her period in office, but fully occupy it. Years and years of leading a government ram-packed with pain-staking multilateral trade negotiations would exhaust a visionary politician. But this enforced boondoggle could be the making of St Theresa.
As Donald Trump used to say, just look at the polling numbers. Survation finds she has a +33% net favourability rating. No surprise that 80%+ of 2015 Conservative voters like the cut of her gib. More of a surprise, perhaps, that 69% of 2015 Lib Dem voters do. Even 2015 Labour voters are more likely to like her than not. Mrs May is that rarest of creatures: a Remain politician trusted by Leavers.
Of course this is the honeymoon. Even ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ Brown managed a few months of popularity before he dithered it away over the 2007 election-that-never-was. For the moment her deliberate eschewal of the Blair / Brown / Cameron hyperactive PR-schtick is the perfect PR for a nation fatigued by daily politics. The risk is yet to come, as the relentless grind of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ becomes more tediously apparent (and why there remains some plausible doubt that Brexit will ever actually become Brexit).
But the political field is clear. Labour is doing what Labour now does… internally wrangling how to reconcile its irreconcilable internal foes: deluded left-wing activists battling pragmatic social democrat MPs. The less said about Owen Smith’s lamentable leadership bid – the mis-judged ‘banter’, the hasty bandwagon policies – the better. It existed solely to lure the soft-left Corbynistas away from the cult and will deservedly be extinguished for precisely that reason. Perhaps next time the sensible, moderate wing of Labour (that of it which remains) will have the courage to stand up and be counted and explain how it can become electable again. And if they can begin to explain it to themselves, maybe they can then explain it to the voters.
Then there’s the Lib Dems. Here I find myself conflicted. I voted for Tim Farron as leader, still like him, and sympathise for the difficulties that come with the job – either actively scorned or passively ignored by opponents and media alike – so much tougher than he could ever have imagined when he dreamt of doing it pre-May 2015. He has made unnecessary mis-steps, notably ignoring education when first identifying his priorities before, now, rightly deciding to place it front-and-centre.
But the biggest risk is that the Lib Dems slouch into comfort zone politics. Ironically the influx of 17,000 new members attracted by Tim Farron’s impassioned defence of the EU makes it tougher: the bulk of the party membership expects doughty defence of all things Europe from its leader. The public – including the one-third 2015 Lib Dem voters who plumped for Leave – expects the Brexit mandate to be respected.
Yet worryingly, Tim is still making speeches with duff, headline-grabbing lines like “We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad”, implying Leave voters have betrayed their country. (Though even that was preferable to Paddy Ashdown’s stupidly offensive accusation that hardline Tory Brexiteers are “brownshirts”.) Thankfully, more specific policies are promised imminently, designed to hold the Government to account and ensure a ‘soft Brexit’. Or, as Tim has put it in a line which would focus group brilliantly at a Lib Dem conference and bomb anywhere containing normal people, the party is aiming for “as much Europe as humanly possible”.
Unwisely, Tim has committed the Lib Dems to campaigning for EU membership at the next election: which was viable in the event of a snap poll (which is now unlikely), but will be a hostage to fortune if we end up fighting the 2020 election on a pledge to lead the UK back into the EU once we’re (on our way) out. Except, that is, for those Lib Dem masochists – they do exist – who want to campaign on a platform of single currency membership, free movement of people, and cash transfers to poorer parts of the EU.
Bluntly, I’m a bit depressed. I’m a liberal Eurosceptic, who voted Remain as much to protest what Leave represented as to stay in the EU as it is. As such I’m pinning my hopes on Theresa May, that she can wrangle some kind of passable deal out of the rubbish hand she’s been dealt. Which doesn’t feel like the most optimistic future for which to hope.