Theresa May lives like a queen. She has little effective power or democratic mandate. The timing of her succession is the talk of Britain. In principle, ministers serve at her pleasure. In practice, they make the decisions. Supporters say she is a passive anchor of continuity in volatile times, while strangers judge her on her outward response to tragic events.
Like Queen Elizabeth after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the prime minister has not found words or actions that equal the national grief for those who died in London's Grenfell Tower fire. Such round-the-clock, 360-degree scrutiny, and without the power to go with it: a monarch's life.
Reduced to ceremonial status by an election she failed to win, the question is whether May’s vision of an EU exit will be reduced accordingly. Leavers have cold logic on their side when they say not. The fact that talks began as scheduled on Monday suggests the election changed nothing. So why does it feel like it did?
Politics lacks the rigour of the natural sciences, but it has something of physics and of chemistry about it. The physics are the structural facts: parliamentary majorities, manifesto commitments, constitutional processes. These still point to Britain’s exit from the European single market, if not the customs union too. Most MPs were elected on a manifesto that promised as much, whatever their inner qualms.
There is a date, March 29th, 2019, by which Britain must conclude a deal or leave without one. There is no formal requirement to stage another referendum that ratifies the exit. The valves through which Britain can yet escape the remorseless logic of absolute departure are not much wider or more numerous than they were before the election. Leavers are right on all these counts.
Chemistry of politics
The chemistry of politics is the atmosphere in which it takes place. It is hard to measure but easy to sense. We know when real-world events change the public mood, which in turn curbs or expands what politicians regard as sayable and doable. When a government abandons a proposal in a matter of weeks – or, in the case of May’s social care reform, days – it is almost never because a vote in parliament was wholly unwinnable. More often, it was just not worth winning: the idea had lost public support and intellectual repute. The atmosphere had changed.
We have all seen ideas pass from the unthinkable to the inevitable – and vice versa – without any political design from above. For seven years, politicians and commentators discussed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act as an awesome monolith, scrutinising the formal barriers it erected to any government bent on an opportunistic election. In the event, when May became the first prime minister to test the Act, those barriers folded. The opposition just could not be seen to vote against a chance to remove the government. Something as ineffable as that mattered more than the mechanical processes codified in law.
The election of June 8th made minimal difference to the physics of EU exit. It made a world of difference to the chemistry. Remainers who were silent in May now speak in coded terms of a deal that keeps Britain open and competitive. Newspapers publish typologies of exit, as though a compromise can be salvaged.
Before the election, Leavers said most voters were reconciled to a hard exit and therefore ahead of the elites on this matter. They now use another argument: that a hard exit will still happen because parliament and the manifestos on which most of it was elected say so. It is a less confident line. It evokes a barrister who has the letter of the law on his side but worries about his rapport with the jury. And all of this happened before a poll appeared recording a change in public attitudes to exit.
The financial markets cannot plan for something as vaporous as political ambience. They are right to assume a brutal exit even after the indecisive election. But investors tend to overrate hard realities and underrate intangibles. They underrate what they cannot price. The political atmosphere is unmistakably more hospitable for Remainers than it was two weeks ago. Over the next two years, it is likelier to improve than to worsen.
The trend of inflation suggests that voters will be nervous by then. The harshness of the exit terms will be a fact, not a prospect. Barring a restorative election win between now and then, the government will be less not more popular.
In these circumstances, a parliamentary vote to leave could be winnable and somehow unthinkable at the same time. The realistic prize is not an absolute decision to stay but a British fudge. Sometimes immovable facts are not. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017