Britain must hang on to its inadequate prime minister
AFTER she contrived to lose the Tories’ parliamentary majority last year in spite of a widely unfancied Labour opposition, Theresa May was described by one former cabinet colleague as “a dead woman walking”. That harsh description has turned out to be only half-right. The prime minister’s inactivity since the election means that it would be more accurate to describe her as a dead woman standing still.
The lack of policies or purpose in Downing Street, coupled with Mrs May’s frequent political pratfalls, have driven the Conservative Party to the brink of seeking a new leader (see article). The case for getting rid of the prime minister is compelling. But consider more closely what would follow and there is a stronger, though depressing, argument that if Britain tried to replace its failing leader it would be even worse off.
Since her electoral disaster Mrs May has blown several last chances. She mishandled the aftermath of a tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. She spluttered her way through a speech designed to relaunch her premiership, as the set literally fell apart behind her. When she attempted a cabinet reshuffle some of her ministers refused to budge. Worse than these blunders is the vacuum of ideas. The politician whom we nicknamed “Theresa Maybe” a year ago still cannot decide what to do about Britain’s housing shortage, the crisis in care for the elderly or the slow decline of the National Health Service.
Most deafening is her silence on Brexit. This was once passed off as a clever tactic to keep Britain’s negotiating strategy under wraps. But with less than a year left to reach a deal, it is clear that the real purpose of her secrecy is to disguise the fact that there is no strategy. Mrs May’s “red lines”, which include leaving the European Union’s customs union and maintaining an invisible Irish border, are mutually inconsistent. On trade, she wants a solution that somehow combines continuity for business with reclaiming control over regulations—and she seems to expect the EU to draw up the blueprint.
But ousting Mrs May might make Brexit little better, and perhaps much worse. Brexit’s internal contradictions could not be squared by any prime minister, though another might be more frank about them. As the government’s own analysis showed this week, the more Britain sets out to reclaim sovereignty the more it will dent prosperity. Leave did not win its majority on the basis that Britons would be poorer. Nor would any prime minister be able to force a have-cake-and-eat-it deal on the EU, whose economy is six times the size of Britain’s.
The Tories are still right to suspect that another leader might make a better job of Brexit than Mrs May. But they would probably pick someone even less suitable. Under party rules, its MPs would shortlist two candidates: probably one proponent of “soft” Brexit (remaining in the customs union and perhaps the single market) and one of the “hard” variety (leaving both arrangements and even walking out of the talks). The party’s members, who back hard Brexit by three to one, would then decide—so the chances are the winner would be a hardliner such as Boris Johnson, the chaotic foreign secretary, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, a neo-Victorian backbench novelty (see article).
Under Mrs May, Britain is on course to leave the EU in 2019 without anything much in place bar a transition agreement to buy a couple more years of talks. The Tories will surely oust her at that point if they do not do so now. But it is conceivable that by then they would be readier to pick a sensible successor. The reality of a hard Brexit’s consequences—for the economy, the Irish border, the regulation of medicines and much else—is slowly dawning. Labour is creeping towards a softer position, giving the Tories space to do the same. A new generation of would-be Conservative leaders might be less willing than their elders to enact a policy that would harm the economy, and with it their party’s electoral prospects. Mrs May’s is a failed premiership that must end. But only when she can be replaced by someone who would not fare even worse.