Theresa May future-proofs herself against inevitable Brexit backlash

She has decided the Brexiteers should be beside her taking the flak for their overselling the benefits of leaving the EU

Newly appointed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses a joint news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Video: Reuters

 

The most dangerous moment for a democratic polity is not when the voters depart from established patterns and leave the old for something new. That’s just volatility. The really dangerous period comes when the new political entity or causes which voters have moved to lets them down. When they feel that the change or new direction or new leader or party has failed them, political trust is even more badly fractured and real dissolution sets in.

A recognition of this risk may help to explain some of the cabinet appointments made recently by the new British prime minister Theresa May.

There were audible gasps in newsrooms and chancelleries all over the world when May appointed Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary. It seemed entirely illogical. Johnson was politically a busted flush. Michael Gove had scuttled his leadership bid. Johnson had insulted many of the world’s leaders in colourful terms in his Daily Telegraph column. He had a reputation for buffoonery. Boris could safely have been left in ruin on the backbenches. Instead May chose to rescue him and put him front and centre in her new government as Britain’s key diplomat.

In the following hours, May further upset her admirers by appointing Liam Fox as secretary for trade and development and his fellow Brexiteer David Davis as secretary for state for exiting the European Union.

It took some time for any apparent logic to emerge behind May’s decisions on these three. It seemed at first that she was doing it purely for party purposes and in order to heal wounds in the Conservative party at Westminster after months of bitter infighting during the referendum campaign and then a brutal and initially bloody leadership contest.

On reflection, it is clear May was at more than that. She has realised that inevitably disillusionment will come as the negotiations to exit from the Europe Union are finalised and that this could undermine not only her premiership and the Conservative party but even the stability of British politics itself. She is prepared at this time to absorb the barbs and brickbats about her appointment of Boris and his fellow Brexiteers in the long-term interest of charting a safer course through the Brexit process.

Words and actions

Theresa May realises that a government led by a prime minister who had campaigned, even relatively half-heartedly, in opposition to Brexit was always going to be open to charges of reneging on the people’s decision to leave. May has sought in her rhetoric since becoming prime minister to reassure those who doubt her Brexit bona fides by emphasising that “Brexit means Brexit”, although it is not clear what the second Brexit in that sentence means. Words were never going to be enough, so May has sought to shore them up by giving some of the prominent Brexit campaigners ownership of the Brexit negotiations.

Brexit cannot be all the things to all the people that Brexit campaigners claimed or implied it would be. It will not solve what they see as Britain’s immigration problem. It will not free up money for expenditure on the NHS at anything like the level they claimed on the side of the Leave campaign bus and oft repeated in media interviews. It will not be possible for Britain to continue to have the same access to the single market of the EU as so many Brexiteers had claimed. Brexit will happen but it will not be Brexit as many of those who voted for it assume it will be.

It is certain that the terms of Britain’s exit from Europe, of its future relations with the single market, and of its new trade deals with other parts of the world will fall short of the panacea many persuaded themselves it could be. It is also very likely that Brexit when it actually comes will be accompanied by economic disturbance and recession. While May will make Brexit happen, she and her government will inevitably be accused of a selling-out on some aspects of it. She has decided that Boris and the other Brexiteers should be beside her in the tent taking the flack for those compromises and having to explain the extent to which they may have oversold the benefits of leaving.

Political trust

The risks of a dangerous breakdown in political trust are not confined to British politics of course. The same risks would emerge in US politics if Donald Trump is elected president given some of the overblown campaign rhetoric he has engaged in. After this week’s shambolic Republican convention in Cleveland, a Trump administration seems even more unlikely however.

Similar disillusionments may play out here in Irish politics when the political rhetoric and promises about water charges comes home to roost sometime next year. It will be on a more limited scale but could still cause further political instability.

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