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Barely Breathing: May’s Gasping Premiership

The Boris Johnson storm, beating away at the British Prime Minister’s doors with an ancient fury, has been stayed for the moment in the wake of the Conservative Party Conference held at Birmingham last week. While the potential usurper batters away on the domestic front with red faced enthusiasm, Theresa May faces the impossible sell: convincing the European Union that the divorce Britain is initiating will still entail some form of faux conjugal relations.  In this, she must also convince the forces of the remainder group that she has a solution that is not the worst of all worlds, a form of permissive molestation that will yield some benefits from the Brussels machinery.

In the background, protests abuzz in an effort to turn the ship away from its current course for March 29, 2019.  The referendum of 2016 that led to a Brexit, goes this line of argument, was attained by audacious cheek, a fraud couched in populist sentiment.  London remains ground zero for the resistance (wasn’t it always?), with its mayor, Sadiq Khan, holding the fort in insisting for a second vote.  The UK, he argued, was trapped between cripplingly dangerous options: “a public vote on any deal or a vote on a no-deal, alongside the option of staying in the EU”.

Khan’s views function as vain hopes in search of a mind changing miracle.  Expressed from London, they might as well sound like the tinny sounds of a capsule lodged in the red earth of Mars.  “People didn’t vote to leave the EU to make themselves poorer, to watch their businesses suffer, to have the NHS wards understaffed, to see the police preparing for civil unrest or for our national security to be put at risk if our cooperation with the EU in the right against terrorism is weakened.”

European leaders, anxious that the EU compact is being gnawed at from within, have also been muttering approvingly for a change of heart.  Keep voting, seems to be this view, till the minds change, a recipe less for democracy than managed thought.  Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went as far as to tell BBC Radio 4 last month that, “We would like the almost impossible to happen… that the UK has another referendum.”

Johnson did have a good go at stirring the pot, and delegates and those gathered at the Tory Conference – some 1,500 – were not disappointed.  “If I have a function here today it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence.”

As usual, Johnson was short on what exactly to do. The hearts would beat, throb even, and the mind would catch-up.  After the wrecking ball, what’s there to do?  “Our diplomatic strategy,” he observed, “was focused on the EU.  That made sense in the 1970s. It makes much less sense today, when 95 percent of the world’s growth is going to be outside the EU.” This has become a stodgy mantra – the world as Britain’s eager oyster waiting to be prized over, pearl and all.

May had certainly been struggling to contain the Johnson bull in the china shop, whose message is to “chuck Chequers”, which was nothing more than a “cheat” that, should it be enacted, would “escalate the sense of mistrust.”  It is a point that has noisy traction. Patrick Robinson, writing in The Telegraph, suggested that the “Chequers plan is not a ‘compromise’ or a negotiating position.  This was the public face of a ploy to keep the UK inside the EU by tying our hands on rules governing foods, food, the environment, the workplace and much else, and maintaining the supremacy of European law in our country.”

In this, he has found common ground from the EU technocrats, who are also none too keen on the prime minister’s distinction between the “common rulebook” for goods but not services, designed to prevent the creation of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  As a wary Donald Tusk of the European Council explained in Salzburg last month, “The suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market.”

May claimed last Tuesday that she had a new policy about immigration in a post-Brexit Britain.  Critics were quick to point out she did not.  Instead of upstaging Johnson, Home Secretary Sajid Javid found himself left in the lurch.  “Boris,” claimed Charles Moore, “was boosted by her hostility, and people listened to his wide-ranging speech.”

Then came the Wednesday speech, made in the aftermath of Johnson’s show which, by her own admission, made her “cross.” She was attempting, while taking a swipe at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, to appeal to those wishing for “a party that is decent, moderate and patriotic.” There would be no more fiscal conservatism in the Cameron-Osborne mould.  The political sectarians would be shunned.  And she could deliver all these promises with a weak jokes and an awkward robotic dance.

While quantifiable figures on sentiment must be treated with studied caution, one poll conducted for The Observer in the aftermath of May’s concluding conference speech suggested that the prime minister had shored up her position. A small 17 percent pitted for Johnson; double that number preferred May.  Washed out and barely breathing, the pulse has returned.  Time, however, is running out.

 

 

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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