[SCMP Column] Teresa May's Brexit

November 24, 2018

I have for over a year studiously avoided the British national catastrophe we call Brexit. As one of Teresa May’s derided “citizens of nowhere”, I have kept my counsel, and watched in sadness over one of the most brutally challenging and counterproductive political negotiations of our lifetime, pondering over the perverse shortcomings of democratic politics that have facilitated such self-harm.

I have put aside the moments of naïve wishful thinking that have from time to time suggested that the nation of my birth might somehow snap out of its trance-like consensus over the inevitability of Brexit, and am reconciled to Mrs May’s pilgrimage this weekend to the special EU summit to endorse a “soft Brexit” deal that in four months time may seal Britain’s separation from the European Union.

Just as I for a time was wishfully thinking that Britain’s electorate might somehow miraculously reverse the June 23 2016 referendum decision, so I still believe that Teresa May’s is indulging in wishful thinking when she talks of her vision of “a once-in-a-generation chance to build a new future for our nation: the chance to shape a stronger, fairer country, a true champion of free trade”.

Whatever Teresa May’s optimistic words, I see a country profoundly divided. Whatever the crude conclusion of the 2016 referendum, I see the young, the professionals, and most people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London still wishing to remain in the European Union. I see the old, the less well-off, and those living in small provincial towns still supporting Brexit in order to “take back control” – implied code for stopping immigration and nostalgically restoring the British empire.

As Philip Stephens wrote in the Financial Times this week: “Across Whitehall, committees of civil servants are hurriedly preparing contingency plans against a national emergency.” He sees an awful choice today between “fudge” and “chaos”, with “absurdity obscuring the seriousness”: “If they reject Mrs May’s deal, MPs will also put an end to the search for a middle-way, muddle-through Brexit. It will be all or nothing – the status quo of a complete rupture.”

Pending next week’s updated assessment of the long-term impact of separation, I remain gloomily reconciled to the reality that Brexit will ultimately reduce the UK’s GDP by 4-5 per cent, that many jobs will be lost to the European continent, and that a difficult decade lies ahead in which Britain’s civil servants will be consumed by the tortuous technical task of disentanglement from Europe, distracted from the pressing challenges of improving education, rejuvenating a creaking and bankrupt national health system, and addressing the challenges of elderly care.

Yet, through all this gloom, one thing above all else has continued to impress me: the indefatigable, selfless persistence of Teresa May, who most British voters would three years ago have dismissed as one of the most improbable of British Prime Ministers. No-one better epitomises the clichéd adage “Keep calm and carry on”.

As she last Monday walked onto the stage at a Confederation of British Industry conference to sell Brexit to a restive business community in a jaunty rust coloured floral blazer (by French designer Paule Ka and costing £673, we are told) and clanking Mona Lisa bracelet, it was impossible not to be impressed.

Here was a woman daily pilloried in Britain’s pro-Brexit press, who lives with daily rumours of imminent overthrow, with open hostility from scions of her own party (eight of her ministers have resigned on Brexit issues in the past year, two of them just last week), who at best is getting a couple of hours sleep every night around endless mind-numbing redrafting of the 575-page Brexit divorce deal, who talked calmly, cogently and with good humour not only about Brexit, but about tackling Britain’s challenges ahead.

While I am not, and will never be, a Conservative, I find her ability not to rise to the taunts and barbs of rivals in her own ranks is nothing short of politically magnificent. Her ability is truly impressive to ignore the daily possibility that she could be overthrown as leader, to put aside that Parliamentarians might overthrow her Brexit proposals when they vote on the deal probably on December 10, or that she might be forced into a General Election that could put in jeopardy past two years of complex, gruelling negotiations.

And to think of her patience: even if Britain’s parliament, and Europe’s 27 member economies, grudgingly agree her draft divorce agreement over the coming couple of weeks, this is just the start: the detailed negotiations on the future nature of Britain’s trade and economic relations with the EU – from fisheries to Gibraltar – have yet to begin, and are likely to take years.

Mrs May became Prime Minister unwelcomed – accepting a poisoned chalice that none of the pretenders to Conservative Party power wished to accept. She faces the very real likelihood that once the Brexit deal is done, she will be gracelessly shown the door.

Yet she has accepted the job, and rides over the daily insults, in good grace and good humour. One senses that when she is shown the door, she will also depart in good grace, clear that she has done her selfless best to manage one of the most impossible and thankless tasks in modern politics. As Bronwen Maddox at Britain’s Institute for Government noted last week: “She offered to pick her way between positions that appeared irreconcilable in search of a middle ground that might not actually exist.”

As historians look back on the tragic and improbable Brexit story, I sense they will see the cause of democracy disserved, and an economy harmed. They will see communities divided, and politicians hopelessly inadequate to resolve the serious challenges they faced – farce masking tragedy.

But in Mrs May, they may see an exception, no matter how brief her period in power, and no matter how confined to the role of “Brexit negotiator in chief”. At a time of aggressive and counterproductive petulance in politics, her patience, resilience, and single-minded focus on Britain’s best interests have set her apart. I may be less impressed by her fashion sense, or her “Dancing Queen” flourishes, but at least her quiet sartorial flourishes provide glimpses into a more colourful personality than the task in hand allows. I may not agree with her, but gosh, I admire the way she goes about her politics.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global and regional challenges, today from a “citizen of nowhere” point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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