There are sound reasons to remove Theresa May as Britain's prime minister. She is a workaday politician who, at 61, will not improve. She is clean out of ideas, as her Davos speech exposed last week. Having squandered the Tories' hard-won majority in parliament, she cannot reasonably contest another election. She has no grip on her colleagues. In charge of a nation that must drum up business around the world, she more or less defines herself against borderless capitalism.
None of these reasons, you will note, touch on Brexit. Yet almost all the schemes against her are driven by frustrations with that process. Leavers resent as crafty sell-outs her choice of EU negotiator, the official Olly Robbins, and chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond. Theresa Villiers, formerly of the cabinet, worries that May will "keep us in the EU in all but name". Smelling an imminent vacancy for prime minister, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is expected to espouse a clearer exit soon.
Less than a year since she fronted a media campaign against Brexit’s “saboteurs”, the Conservative right hounds her as one of the spoilers. Some of this is raw embarrassment at having backed an electoral dud. The rest is a sincere strategic view that Brexit is threatened by May’s survival as prime minister. Only the first of these motives makes sense.
Unless her critics really think she should favour an abrupt departure over bad terms of transition, vassaldom beckons for two years at least
What material difference would a change of prime minister make to the exit talks? Unless the government rescinds the decision to leave, its options have always been the same. These boil down to substantial enmeshment with the single market (along Norwegian lines) or external trade with it (the Canadian model). Britain tried to fudge the difference by exploring market membership without market rules, but got as far as Brussels warned it would.
After that, the choice is between overnight departure in March 2019 or a transition that imposes the burdens of membership but withholds the voting rights. There are hopes of a goldilocks fix – a transition that spares Britain what MPs call “vassal” status – but the EU is adamant. The record shows that EU red lines tend to hold.
What, then, is a new prime minister supposed to do that May has not? She has already settled the first choice in favour of the Canadian model. (If anything, it should be Remainers who dream of a new, more Norway-minded prime minister.) As for the second, she wants a transition, as do all but a reckless few, and seeks the best terms. But unless her critics really think she should favour an abrupt departure over bad terms of transition, vassaldom beckons for two years at least.
Britain was never going to win the terms of exit that Johnson and others held out as theirs for the taking
So again, what blinder would a new prime minister play that May is not able to? Pressed on this point, Leavers say that he or she would evangelise for Britain’s future as a trading nation, or set out domestic reforms that draw on all those recaptured powers. These really are the sturdiest answers going – intangibles of “vision” and “leadership”. On the specifics of Brexit, which they claim is in mortal doubt, they expect extraordinarily little of a new prime minister. So little that you are left to wonder at the point of recruiting one.
The anger at May is redirected anger at Britain’s diplomatic mismatch with the EU. It personalises something structural, namely, the advantage held by a near 450 million-strong union in bilateral talks with a nation of 65 million. Britain was never going to win the terms of exit that Johnson and others held out as theirs for the taking. Admitting as much would sting a bit, so the blame is transferred, like a debt, to the prime minister.
The crime becomes her execution of the idea, not the idea. The trick puts you in the mind of those communists who believe their manifesto just needs more faithful enactors than the pesky real world has thrown up. In politics, the howl of “betrayal” is self-exculpation by another name.
If Tories want to win votes, or make their country more vivid at Davos, they should remove May. But if their express purpose is to secure Brexit, it would achieve nothing at best. At worst, the arrival of a new interlocutor would just shore up the EU’s suspicions about British perfidy.
The structural realities of the exit talks weigh more than the individuals who conduct them. If Britain were led by a chess grandmaster who moonlighted as a Nobel-winning game theorist, it would still face the same choices as May, most of which she has settled in the Leavers’ favour.
There is no dry power she is unaccountably choosing to sit on. The human factor is, for once, overrated. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018