Student politics

22 July

Let us start out by acknowledging that before Chequers, David Davis, Steve Baker and all of DExEu were completely side-lined (BBC Daily Politics, 9 July: interview with Steve Baker, remarks after 1 min 35 secs). Let us go on to consider the cascade of statements from Airbus, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Siemens ahead of the Chequers cabinet. Bear in mind that senior industrialists keep quiet about public policy, unless they’ve been asked to break cover by the government of the day. Their trumpeted worries handily set the scene for May’s White Paper, in an echo of Obama’s less effective student politics for his pal, Cameron, a couple of years ago. And no-one is denying that May pre-sold her plans to Merkel, the day before they reached the Commons.


More skulduggery between May and the EU’s leadership - these days, effectively Martin Selmayr – seems to be in the offing. The EU Commission has issued a Preparedness document encompassing the possibility of no deal. This is ostensibly an administrative wake-up call to the EU27, but it also serves as a warning to the UK public. The notion is that more along these lines will spook Leavers into changing their minds, paving the way for a second referendum. The on dit from Brussels is that Selmayr and May have found common cause in promoting such a development: Selmayr sees it as legitimising the diktat he is engineering, while May sees it as liberating her party from the whole disagreeable mess.

On this view, May's role in the wheeze is illustrated by Raab’s promise to publish seventy “Technical notices” (paywall). These too are ostensibly administrative, but they too are intended to serve as a drip-feed of grief over the summer, with May and Selmayr praying that they put the wind up Leavers enough to move the YouGov polls towards that second referendum.


And yet, and yet: it is foolish to believe that even such godheads as May and Selmayr can altogether control events. For example, May and Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman, were taken aback on Sunday last, when activists expressed their fury at her White Paper and the manner of its agreement. That’s why the whips had to accept hard-Brexit amendments the following day. May did get the benefit of the customary good manners of constituency chairmen, but party officials got enough of a flea in their ears for their boss to realise she needed to mount a personal charm offensive to win the grassroots over. Given her gift for communications, this would be a long way from a cinch.

At this point, she benefits enormously from the lack of effective opposition to her approach. Rees-Mogg is too rarefied a taste; Fox, Gove, Grayling, Leadsome and Raab are inside the tent; McVey and Mordaunt have waited too long to resign; IDS and Redwood are seen as yesterday’s men; Baker is too junior and anyhow, his talent is for insurrection. Only Johnson - recovering his mojo with disgruntled voters (paywall) - has the stature to launch something akin to a “Midlothian campaign”: a round of speeches, putting up Gladstonian arguments which reject point by point the revival of “Project Fear”; and redirecting attention to the sunlit uplands.


Whitehall veterans quip that May is “Gloria”, as in Gloria Gaynor’s anthem, “I will survive”. This is a forlorn echo of “Tina”, Norman St John Stevas’ reluctantly admiring tag for Margaret Thatcher, who was given to drill “there is no alternative” into her early, “wet”, cabinets. The Mandarin humour could do May a disservice: she could be indifferent to details of outcome providing the ship of state stays afloat, in weather which she sees as so stormy as to rob her of greater ambition. She may be winning a measure of credit for determination, but recent YouGov polls show that overall, her student politics is losing the battle. Some 75% of respondents (data from 16-17 July) say that the government is handling negotiations badly (up from 66% two weeks ago); and (data from 10-11 July) 53% oppose her approach (up from 43%) and 69% say her plans are unclear (up from 58%). This means that things could go south for May in a hurry, if Brussels comes to be seen as outright bullying, or she herself comes to be seen as outright complicit with the EU against the national interest.