I envy anyone stupid enough to have thought this would all be done and dusted by June 24 last year. The Brexit saga seems set to run and run as though Brian Rix was at the helm; all that’s missing is a pair of trousers round the ankles, though if I could I’d gladly pay whatever Theresa May’s designer leather pants cost to be spared the sight of them occupying the traditional Whitehall position. The weekend was full of headlines on the subject, beginning with Nicola Sturgeon’s latest desperate attempt to assert what she regards as her authority by aiming another threat in the direction of Westminster.
Acutely aware that the climate isn’t quite ready for a Scottish Independence Referendum she hopes will this time gain her the result to justify both her own career and her party’s existence, Scotland’s First Minister has declared she’s prepared to put a rerun on the backburner if the PM can fix it so that the UK remains part of the European Single Market. Oh, it’s still on the cards, but Sturgeon promises she’ll put it off for a bit – not unlike the Brexit negotiations, then. Yes, they may have opted for Remain north of the border, but in the seven months since the EU Referendum, the majority decision of England and Wales to vote Leave hasn’t seen the upsurge in renewed demand for Scottish independence that Sturgeon anticipated, so it’s hardly a great sacrifice on her part to delay.
It was obvious even before the votes were cast last June that Sturgeon would be praying for the Sassenachs to go for the Brexit option and she wasted little time in exploiting the situation, quick off the blocks by announcing the decision of 2014 would not be one she’d honour for long. However, the First Minister’s opportunism, whilst galvanising the bad losers afresh, has failed to gain many new recruits. The unexpected success of the Tories in Scotland under Ruth Davidson on the eve of the EU Referendum was something few saw coming, least of all Sturgeon; and Davidson is hardly likely to be a fellow cheerleader for a second referendum that could reduce Scotland’s outside economic benefits even further at a time when separation from Europe has already been voted for.
The climate is uniquely conducive to Nicola Sturgeon’s somewhat crass headline-grabbing tactics, though – largely due to the continuing uncertainty over what flavour Brexit the country will go for: hard, soft, crunchy, chewy? One can’t really blame the SNP leader for capitalising on the confusion. It doesn’t help that Theresa May has mostly limited her public pronouncements on the topic by repeating ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and not much more.
In many respects, it’s difficult to think of a previous occupant of No.10 who’s been resident for as long as six whole months keeping such a low profile at a moment when what used to be called ‘strong leadership’ seems so essential. May appears to have taken a strange approach to the job, as if content to keep her head down and hide behind the now-irrelevant mandate achieved by her predecessor until it expires in 2020.
Her reluctance to challenge the fixed parliamentary term established by the Coalition after 2010 suggests a curious lack of confidence in defeating an opposition party more divided than it has been in over thirty years or it says she’s a ditherer. Neither indicates we currently have the forceful figure we apparently need if we are to successfully navigate the minefield that all those European treaties of the 90s marooned us in.
Of course, the weekend saw the first major TV interview the Prime Minister has given on Brexit, probably timed as a riposte to the UK’s outgoing ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, whose parting gesture was to accuse the Government of ‘muddled thinking’ over the issue; Nicola Sturgeon cannily preempted May’s big moment, and though the PM talked at length, she skirted around clarity by resorting to recycling the empty, sloganeering rhetoric about ‘taking back our borders’ that characterised her years at the Home Office. May says she’ll be ‘setting out more details in the coming weeks’, but many no doubt came away from the Sky chat no clearer on what will happen than they were before it aired.
Negative reactions to May’s vague waffle both from Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Mr Plastic Man himself, Keir Starmer, as well as the Lib Dem leader (and fellow resident of Planet Mediocre) Tim Farron, were predictable but understandable when nobody seems to really know what comes next. The plain fact is that none of the political class expected this result and therefore didn’t plan ahead for it.
The simplicity of the two choices on the ballot paper when the country spoke on June 23 2016 didn’t specify anything beyond ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’, which could be seen as a means of duping the electorate into believing it genuinely was that simple or as a case of shrewdly avoiding the technical complexities of an actual exit from the EU, something the Government figured it wouldn’t have to deal with anyway.
Joining what was then the European Economic Community was a long-drawn out affair spanning a decade, and nothing has so far suggested leaving its leviathan successor will be any speedier a process. Naturally, the longer the delays, the more the opportunities for those eager to throw a spanner in the works have to cast doubt on the wisdom of the decision; but, as with the striking railwaymen clinging to their Luddite tendencies amidst the unstoppable encroachment of automation, one cannot help but feel opposition to the inevitable is futile on a level unseen since King Canute took his seat on the beach. It’ll happen; we just don’t know when. And I don’t think Theresa May does either.
© The Editor