Back in December 2016 I wrote an article for The Duran in which I wrote of how Theresa May’s inability to articulate a clear Brexit plan exposed her as someone with no clear idea of the way forward.
In the weeks following that article the Supreme Court decision forced Theresa May to present a Brexit plan to the House of Commons, something which up to then she had been loathe to do, almost certainly because she had no plan to present. The plan was essentially one for a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ – with Britain quitting both the EU and the European Single Market – so as to give itself the power to reimpose control of its borders.
In my opinion that has been the only politically viable Brexit plan all along, since it is quite clear to me that the demand for Britain to regain control of its borders was a key factor in causing Leave to win the Brexit referendum, and that any idea of somehow reconciling that demand with Britain remaining a part of the European Single Market was fanciful to the say the least.
The point is that it was only the High Court and Supreme Court decisions that finally forced Theresa May to spell this out. Had the High Court and the Supreme Court not made those decisions, it is likely that Theresa May would have invoked Article 50 sometime this month without making clear what sort of Brexit she wanted. The uncertainty would have been further prolonged, further souring the political climate and the course of the Brexit negotiations.
The trouble is that this inability to chart a firm course on Brexit – a serious enough matter in itself – is now becoming increasingly the pattern of Theresa May’s approach to government. On issue after issue – Brexit, relations with Russia, Hinkley Point – Theresa May appears to stake out a firm position, only to retreat from it at the first sign of trouble.
We now have the most spectacular example of this.
Just seven days ago Chancellor Philip Hammond, Theresa May’s Finance Minister, announced an increase in national insurance contributors for self-employed people. At a time when Britain’s budget remains under stress, with deficits now expected to continue into the all but indefinite future, and with Britain’s health and education services experiencing a severe funding crisis, this small tax increase makes complete sense even if the amount it raises is small.
In the event the move provoked a wholly predictable outcry from certain sections of the Conservative media and amongst some MPs of Theresa May’s own Conservative Party. Where a strong Prime Minister – a Margaret Thatcher say – would have brushed such protests aside, Theresa May took just seven days to capitulate to them, cancelling the tax increase whilst getting her staff to brief against Hammond, whom they have unfairly blamed for the whole debacle.
The result is that Theresa May today has been humiliated, whilst her relationship with Philip Hammond – previously thought to be a close ally and the single most important minister in the government apart from Theresa May herself – has now been soured.
Theresa May has up to now been an undeservedly lucky Prime Minister. The intense hostility of the British political class to the Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, the strong if ultimately unsustainable growth of the British economy since the Brexit referendum, the popularity of the Brexit policy Theresa May has because of the court decisions stumbled into, and the misleading appearance of strength and competence Theresa May has up to now successfully managed to convey, have concealed her weakness, and made her popular.
The result is that though the essential characteristic of her government is drift, with Theresa May failing to chart a course for Britain post-Brexit and invariably taking the line of least resistance on any issue, there is no obvious challenger or alternative to her, and she looks certain to remain Prime Minister for a long time. This even as nothing is done to prepare Britain for life after Brexit, as the negotiating strategy for Brexit remains a closed book, and as Scotland looks increasingly likely to secede.
It was once said of the Habsburg empire that shortly before its fall administration had replaced government, with the empire’s ministers concerning themselves with purely routine matters as the multiple crises that threatened the empire’s existence steadily built up.
Whether that was ever actually true of the Habsburg empire is highly debatable. It is however increasingly becoming true of Britain. Under Theresa May administration has replaced government.