In an excellent piece for The Telegraph earlier this week, Fraser Nelson, The Spectator’s editor, argued very compellingly that the backlash to the Brexit White Paper, currently swelling through every echelon of the Tory party, lies not in the detail of the plan, but rather stems from the overinflated expectations of its MPs and activists not being met. I couldn’t agree more.
Cast your mind back to early 2016, when the Referendum chatter was really beginning to gather a pace and no one doubted that the Remain camp would be victorious. Presented then with the prospect of a deal that ends the free movement of people, significantly cuts Britain’s £10 billion annual contribution to the EU, and ‘takes back control’ of our laws, as well as the policies that govern our fishing and agricultural industries, any sane Brexiteer would have bitten your hand off.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the recent public debate has been the swift reputational diminution of those demigods of the Leave campaign, like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who have broken ranks to back the Prime Minister’s White Paper. How can these former Brexit visionaries have degraded themselves to such a liberal elite view, many of their former supporters now ask?
The answer is quite simple. It’s a pragmatic plan, and anyone with even a smidgen of real world experience knows it. What’s more, although it hasn’t yet been agreed to by Michel Barnier and his fellow negotiators, it’s understood that Angela Merkel has given it the nod of approval.
The problem is, having not firmly laid down the law to some of her most ardent Leave MPs from the start, and more importantly, been upfront that compromise will be necessary, the Prime Minister has raised expectations to such an extent that anything but the hardest of Brexits will now be viewed as an abject failure, and perhaps more damaging, a betrayal of what was previously promised. ‘If she has already rowed back this far, how much further will she retreat?’, goes the thinking.
But I would argue that this inability to properly manage expectations displays a political ineptitude that has been present throughout the duration of Theresa May’s time at No10. How many of those ‘burning injustices’ she promised to tackle at that first Downing Street press conference upon entering office have been addressed? None. Any progressive domestic policy ambitious have been swallowed whole by the legislative black hole that is Brexit.
That is not to say that Theresa May was somehow dishonest in setting out her desire to reduce the racial, economic and gender inequalities that continue to blight some parts of Britain, nor would we expect a Prime Minister, new to office, to be any less ambitious in their approach. But, just like the dream of a simple Brexit with international trade deals aplenty, such an openly radical agenda was always going to remain the stuff of fairy tales.
Voters want to be inspired, yes, but they don’t appreciate being mollycoddled. The main appeal of Nigel Farage, the chief architect of Brexit, is his straight talking, no nonsense persona, a trait Theresa May has never been able to adopt. Although she has now finally bitten the bullet and told MPs and voters alike how it is, it may be too late. Coming so far into the negotiations, it makes the challenge of convincing the electorate that any form of compromise is not weakness, but shrewd pragmatism, all that much harder.
Back in 2013, on my very first day working in politics as a lowly parliamentary intern, I was taught never to promise constituents what you can’t deliver. Despite being elected Leader of the Conservative Party thanks to her image as a politically astute, experienced operator with a safe pair of hands, it appears Theresa May has only just learnt that lesson. That mistake might now prove fatal to her tenure.