May’s Brexit showdown has made her a stronger Prime Minister


For all the apparent chaos, this week may turn out to have been a good one for Theresa May. It finally prompted a showdown that had to happen and gave her the chance to correct two of her earliest mistakes.

The first of those goes by the name of the Department for Exiting the European Union. The second is called Boris Johnson.

To understand why the former was an error, it’s necessary to go back to December 2016.

Seeking news stories to fill the Downing Street grid over recess, I decided to announce the names of the UK’s Brexit negotiating team. I arranged for the names to be sent to me and one was noticeable by its absence: David Davis.

Unsurprisingly I challenged this omission but the response I received was surprising. This was not some kind of administrative oversight. David was not, in fact, part of the team that would lead the negotiations. It was his – and DExEU’s – job to steer the Brexit legislation through Parliament and to prepare the country for life after Brexit. It was emphatically not his job to be part of the negotiating team to get us there. “He should be spending all his time in Parliament”, one person said.

This incident highlights the tension that came to a head this week. David clearly, and understandably, thought it was part of his job to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU. Number 10 did not. That would be done by the prime minister and her officials. As a result, David was a good man doing an almost impossible job. His resignation is an understandable response. However, the problem of his department, and what precisely it exists to do, remains.

Boris was a mistake for a different reason. The prime minister underestimated the extent to which the former Foreign Secretary is reviled in European capitals, where he is seen as someone who lied and dissembled to wrench the United Kingdom out of the EU.

As a result, his appointment to one of the top jobs in government – particularly one with a direct bearing on the Brexit negotiations – was interpreted as an aggressive move that got those negotiations off on the wrong foot. The prime minister’s continued indulgence of him over the years since, when any other Cabinet Minister acting as he did may have long since lost their job, only made matters worse.

With such a reputation on the Continent, the suggestion that Boris would be able to run a more effective negotiation is as fantastical as his idea of Brexit.

And that idea is, as Boris himself admits in a telling piece of phrasemaking, no more than a dream. Those who believe there is more there – some detailed blueprint for a post-Brexit existence – are doomed to disappointment.

This was made clear to me last September on the flight home from the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

With most people asleep, a small number of us worked on the prime minister’s Florence speech late into the night trying to get the critical and complicated section on the future regulatory relationship right. As we did so, the former Foreign Secretary pulled me to one side.

I awaited his words of wisdom. “You know Chris”, he said, “we’ve just got to get out. We can worry about all of this other stuff later. I think we’ve just got to leave”. Stunned that this was all one of the main architects of Brexit had to offer, all I could say was “you know what Boris, I’d noticed”.

And with that, I returned to the complicated task of trying to communicate this complex area of policy while the Foreign Secretary turned over to sleep soundly in his bed.

Yet where Boris and his band of Brexiteers have failed to construct a blueprint for their vision of Brexit, the prime minister and her team have tried to do so. For the past 18 months, ever since she laid out the parameters for the negotiation at Lancaster House, she has tested every proposition and explored every avenue.

She has given the Brexiteers every opportunity to develop a convincing plan for their ‘hard’ Brexit, but they have failed to do so. Instead, all the evidence shows that – even were it negotiable, a highly doubtful proposition – that way lies job losses, economic danger and a clear and present threat to the Union.

That is too high a price to pay for a dream. The Brexiteers argue the turmoil may be short-lived – just a decade or so – while the long-term benefits will be substantial. But while that may be ok for people like Boris Johnson, the cost for ordinary families would be huge.

The prime minister is not prepared to take that gamble. Thus, after many twists and turns along the #RoadtoBrexit, she finds herself facing in the right direction and moving with the mainstream of Conservative, parliamentary and public opinion. Her plan, endorsed by all who sat around the Cabinet table at Chequers last Friday, delivers Brexit while safeguarding jobs, living standards and the integrity of the United Kingdom. And it reflects the close nature of the referendum result too – a marginal victory that means some compromise is necessary.

For almost two years, the Brexiteers have used those who voted ‘Leave’ in that referendum as a kind of human shield, conveniently ignoring last year’s general election – a more recent expression of the will of the people, in which their vision of a ‘hard’ Brexit failed to win a majority. But at some point a confrontation with reality had to come. That is what we have witnessed this week. It is why the prime minister is right and should stick to her course.

If she does, this week could be the making of her. Boris may have his dream but governing is about dealing with the real. And, as the Brexit dreamers have discovered this week, reality bites.

By Chris Wilkins, former chief speechwriter to prime minister Theresa May and ex-director of strategy at Number 10.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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