Chris Johns: What if . . . Theresa May resigns and Boris takes over
What if the prime minister realises just how bonkers Brexit and the Brexiteers are?
British Prime Minister Theresa May. What if she realises how mad Brexit is?
Imagine Theresa May emerging from 10 Downing Street, flanked by her spouse, to address the nation via the assembled press corps. The date is April 1st, 2017. This is what she might say:
“As you all know, yesterday was the self-imposed deadline for the UK to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the process whereby Brexit is to begin. Understandably, much is being made this morning of my failure to meet that deadline. Sterling has already collapsed further below parity with the euro.
“I would like to take this opportunity to explain to the British people why I failed to act as promised and what will happen next. At the Conservative Party conference last autumn, I undertook to begin the formal process of leaving the EU by the end of the first quarter of 2017.
“I made this pledge in good faith, aware of the enormity of what we were undertaking, unsure about the eventual outcome, but always believing that the will of the British people must be honoured above all else. I also believed that with goodwill on all sides, a good outcome for Britain and Europe could be achieved.
“I no longer believe this to be possible.
“Opponents of Brexit have regularly pointed out that the Leave campaign never formulated a plan to leave. That observation – suspicion – turned out to be spot on. Moreover, the leaders of that campaign, most of whom I naturally appointed to senior cabinet roles specifically created to take charge of the exit process, never seemed willing to formulate such a plan, even after they had been asked to do so.
“To my utter astonishment, they have been implacable in their unwillingness to engage with the tortuous process of negotiation, unwilling to master the obvious complexity and, most ominously for me, unable to show the slightest sign of compromise, not prepared to budge from their simplistic, default position. They only wish ‘to just leave’, without any inclination to engage with what happens after that.”
“What does ‘to just leave’ mean? As I understand it, the hardest of Brexits is what is wanted: this is the desire: to completely disengage with the EU at all levels, including the single market and customs union.
“The only point of detail than offered by the proponents of this view is that we would then rejoin the World Trade Organisation [WTO] and negotiate bilateral trade deals with whoever is willing to do so. The assumption is that there will be a long queue of countries and regions, including the EU, clamouring to do so.
“I have to tell you that this is all fantasy. At all levels. Rejoining the WTO may not be a simple affair: We only belong now via our membership of the EU, and all of the members of the WTO have to agree to our changed status.
“And this is just one point of detail – and rather a large one, as it happens – among many thousands that have to be considered. All of those details matter, not least to individuals and businesses who have to plan for the future. The lack of seriousness, the shallow thinking of my colleagues has, for me, been one of the most disturbing features of the past few months.
“I repeat: the details matter. They are why things have become so uncertain for savers, investors, consumers and companies. As that uncertainty has grown, the toll on the economy has become obvious.
“The doomsayers were proved wrong when they forecast an immediate post-referendum recession for the economy. But they were right with their expectations for trouble.
“Perhaps they used the wrong metaphor.Rather than falling off a cliff, the economy is starting to look like a slowly boiled frog, one that is in danger of expiring unless something pretty dramatic happens.
“As I became aware of all of this, I nevertheless undertook to honour my commitments, keep my promises to the British people. For a while, I believed that I could still fulfil my solemn duties as prime minister. I said ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and was criticised for not explaining what that meant. Let me now do so.”
Honours the wishes
“The British people voted to leave the EU. All the rest is pure conjecture. As prime minister, my job has been to ensure that the referendum is honoured but in a way that also honours the unspoken wishes of the British people. While we can speculate forever about what those desires are, I am quite sure what they are not.
“The British people did not signal that they wish to turn away from the world and eviscerate their economy. The vote did not signal that we are at heart a xenophobic, inchoate, angry nation. The path desired by many of my colleagues strongly suggests that they believe otherwise.
“Given these stark differences of view, the only chance of achieving a result that could be even roughly acceptable to the majority of us is if the negotiations are treated seriously and with a spirit of compromise.
“I have already commented on my colleagues lack of seriousness and their implacable opposition to compromise. Indeed, a significant proportion of the MPs in my party have a well-articulated plan to remove me as their leader – and as prime minister – at the first sign of me willing to meet Europe half way on any issue at all.
“So it is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that resignation is now the only path open to me. I wish it were otherwise, but my position is untenable. I have been sent bound and gagged by my colleagues to the negotiating table. That can only result in the worst possible outcome for the UK.
“There are two options for the next prime minister, who will, unlike me, have been a prominent Leave campaigner: call an election for a hard Brexit mandate or plough on regardless.
“I wish Boris luck with whatever path he chooses.”