Theresa May is Not in Control of Events and It’s Gonna Get Worse

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” So said Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, translating - somewhat loosely - Charles Baudelaire.

If Baudelaire meant that the devil thrives by perpetuating modern secularism and relativist attitudes towards the concept of evil, then scepticism is his trick. In politics, the reverse holds.

I make no comparison - moral or otherwise - between the devil and any politician but they too want to trick us. Politicians do not want scepticism. Every government wants us to believe that they are in control; oppositions, while requiring us to doubt opponents, want us to believe in their ability to control. In a way the referendum success of Brexit, the honeymoon of Theresa May and, in a more limited sense, the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn amongst Labour member is about belief.

Brexit’s victory was, in a large part, down to its appealing slogan “Take Back Control”: their campaign propogated the idea that leaving the European Union would create order from chaos. Jeremy Corbyn is trying to do the same but his is the simple order of socialism that will wipe away the devil’s (capitalism’s) sins.

Politicians thrive when voters believe that they control events. The most successful adapt quickly when events change: look at how George W Bush and Tony Blair responded to 9/11. In their different ways, they acknowledged change but promised order. More suddenly, it was loss of control on Black Wednesday which felled John Major’s government; Gordon Brown was skewered by a global crash that he had pledged to avoid (“No return to boom and bust”).

And like her predecessors, Theresa May has played this trick.

Brexiteers will put any negative aftermath of Brexit down to execution not the fundamental idea itself

The prime minister has had an awful lot of luck. When she stood for the leadership, her rivals imploded; Labour was distracted by internal squabbles and, since Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, has been mired in confusion and incompetence; she was able to define herself against the old order to a degree that allowed her to alter her party’s identity. At a time of potential crisis, she easily assumed the mantle of control. Her missteps, such as her hasty Washington trip, have been few. Her reward was a thumbs up from voters: the Tory lead in the polls now stands at 19 points.

The illusion effectively allowed the government to exist without policy for some time. The lack of opposition meant that May had until this year to formulate a negotiating stance.

All that is about to change.

This is a government easily thwarted by a handful of backbenchers. There are now at least thirty prepared to rebel against the budget NIC tax rise. May and Hammond must be thanking the gods that Labour re-elected Jeremy Corbyn: any other opposition leader would have made the hike a central plank of his or her response. However, the kinder, gentler politics dictate that attacking an opponent’s weakness is unnecessary.

The press hammered the government instead. A climb down is inevitable and, since the measure was not due to be brought in until after the autumn budget, the chancellor might be able to do it without too much loss of face.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of his NIC hike, the budget partially recognised the difficulty Brexit will present the British economy. The right-wing opposition plus the savaging of Brexit Secretary David Davis over the weekend, demonstrate how tenuous the government’s parliamentary grasp is. That there is going to be economic pain is patent to all but the most ardent Leavers. Yet they cannot accept the consequence of their own agenda: Brexiteers will put any negative aftermath of Brexit down to execution not the fundamental idea itself.

Greece showed how little leverage one country has against a determined bloc

If May is able to, she will invoke Article 50 this week. It is at this point that she truly loses control. To the present all she has had to contend with was her own party and, to a much lesser extent, parliament. Soon she will find herself at the mercy of not just her supposed allies but the remaining 27 members of the European Union: large and small countries will have an equal say in the terms of Britain’s EU exit.

May will have to agree the divorce bill. Though under no legal obligation to pay, at the very least Britain must be willing to fulfill existing commitments. To expect May to play Thatcher at Fontainebleau then negotiate a reasonable trade deal is CloudCuckooLand stuff. Any future trade deal is not in her hands but the 27 member states who each have their own agenda plus a united self-interest that will clash with Britain’s. In 2015, Greece showed how little leverage one country has against a determined bloc. Moreover, Britain’s final deal will have to be ratified by the European Parliament. How is this a strong hand?

What has characterised the Brexit debate since the referendum it not so much the devil at work, but fairy tale politics. Reasoned scepticism has been met with complacency.

Whatever Britain did in June 2016, it certainly wasn’t doing was taking back control. And whatever tricks she plays, Theresa May is certainly not in control.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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