Waffle aside, Theresa May is a Brexit prime minister

UK Politics: Britain’s future hinges on what the prime minister asks for – and gets

British prime minister Theresa May: as she takes Britain out of the EU, and probably the single market, she wants to preserve enough time, energy and that ineffable thing called political capital to forge a “People’s Conservatism”. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

British prime minister Theresa May: as she takes Britain out of the EU, and probably the single market, she wants to preserve enough time, energy and that ineffable thing called political capital to forge a “People’s Conservatism”. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

It started with New Labour and its commitment to metaphysical impossibilities such as “Excellence for all” and “Giving every child the best start in life”. Once my trade let this hokum pass, sometimes even scrutinising it as strategy, politicians were licensed to waffle.

According to the theme of her first Tory party conference as prime minister, Theresa May wants a Britain that “works for everyone”. At no point has a nation worked for everyone. There are always relative losers, always distributional choices to make.

May has coined a reputation as a woman of deeper social conscience than her predecessor, David Cameron, on the back of simply suggesting this is so, a lot, in hollow epigrams. This is our fault, not hers.

To be fair, May’s objective is to avoid Europe swallowing her premiership. Her two conference speeches – Sunday’s on EU exit, a call for social reform on Wednesday – are meant to separate the diplomatic from the domestic. As she takes Britain out of the EU, and probably the single market, she wants to preserve enough time, energy and that ineffable thing called political capital to forge a “People’s Conservatism”.

It is a touching ambition, and May will feel stung when it comes to nought. Even if she possessed some original ideas for reform, she does not have enough MPs to do anything contentious. And even if she had the MPs, the executive branch of government will be immersed in the technical work of European extrication.

Even if Whitehall were free to realise her domestic vision, nobody in or around politics is very interested. May’s premiership is already lost to Europe. That was always the price of taking the job when it came up this summer.

Wild reaction

She says she will repeal the 44-year-old act that put Britain under European law, effective upon leaving the EU. It would be odd not to. The only substantial news cleaves to the status quo: May apparently wants to retain all EU laws and, over time, decide which bits to lose.

If these innocuous remarks set Westminster alight – and, to judge by sterling’s dip, the City of London as well – then imagine the blaze every time Britain hits an impasse in formal talks with the clock running on the two-year deadline.

In British politics and business, people are – rightly – obsessed with the precise shape of the UK’s future place in Europe. It will determine so much else. May has no prayer of interesting them in adjustments to the planning and land use regime, or a “proper industrial strategy”.

If she had an inspired plan for domestic policy, she might be able to detain our attention. But there is no evidence that she (or anyone) does. Her knack is for the operational art of politics. She did not become prime minister through feats of imagination or insight.

We tend to read depth into any politician – any person – who is taciturn and elusive.

In a rich, tolerably governed country, the number of big new ideas that are also viable is always low. The number that can draw eyes away from something as important as the European saga is probably zero. Nor is it even possible to know what kind of reform is necessary until the terms of exit are set. Different terms create different needs.

Equal economy

May says she will not give a running commentary on Europe. This is up there with taking out gym membership on New Year’s Day. She will fold. Anyone would. Journalists, MPs, employers, markets and demobilised campaigners from both sides of the referendum will press her on Europe without remorse or respite.

Dwelling on this subject used to be a mark of eccentricity. It is now rational. Britain’s future hinges on what May asks for, and gets. She cannot expect us to care what she thinks about the “gig economy”. She is the Brexit prime minister and nothing else.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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