Thirty wasted months and counting

Image: BBC

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a race on between biographers of Theresa May to complete their work. Only the first of them to finish will be able to use the title Nothing Has Changed and the rest will have to scrabble around to try and find something, anything, that resonates even half as well.

Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016 and since then the entire country has been stuck in a holding pattern, eagerly awaiting some vision about what shape Brexit will take only to find that when it came down to it, all we had was what she said right back then, that Brexit means Brexit. Mocked as a meaningless phrase back then, it’s a perfect description for the process we’ve gone through over those thirty months. With no vision and little to no discussion or debate, she finally pieced together something that resembles a deal (but with almost anything contentious can-kicked down the road to be dealt with later) and has now decided that her deal is Brexit, and if Brexit means Brexit, then Brexit can only mean her deal.

We’ve had a vacuum at the heart of British politics where the end point hasn’t been a vision of the future but merely finding a technical solution to a problem. Just as Brexit meant Brexit, what they wanted the deal to look like was defined as what the deal would look like when it was done so when May’s deal finally staggered into the light it couldn’t just be *a* deal, it had to be *The* Deal, even if it wasn’t anything that anyone had wished for back when this whole process started.

Those thirty months have gone by without any plan, without any focus and with any meaningful debate stifled by ‘well, wait until you see the deal’. Now, I’m not going to suddenly pretend here that I’m not anti-Brexit and that the best deal available to the UK is remaining in the EU under current conditions, but surely there must have been a better way to manage all this? One where we don’t feel like we’ve been kicking our heels for the two years or more and then everything having to be thrown together in the last few months while the clock inexorably ticks down towards March 29th? One where we actually tried to find or make a national consensus about the destination rather than just letting everyone hunker down in their mutually antagonistic bunkers, hoping to be the last one left when everything else had been reduced to rubble?

One question that comes to my mind often is whether the Tory leadership election of 2016 was a missed opportunity given that it was effectively over before it properly began. We had a week or so of MP votes and wondering who was going to face May in the members’ vote, then Andrea Leadsom’s campaign imploded over a weekend and May was the last candidate standing. What we didn’t get in that election was May setting out both a path to Brexit and a vision of the destination she was aiming for. Even if the vote was just Tory members, the debate between the two candidates, taking a few weeks to cover the country, would have given us the space as a country to at least build the basis for a national conversation.

There were two questions we needed an answer to in 2016: of those who voted Leave, we needed to ask “what kind of Brexit do you want?”, and of those who voted Remain, we needed to ask “what kind of Brexit would you accept?” If you’re trying to implement a decision that was won on a narrow majority without breaking the country afterwards, you need to both be clear about what the majority voted for (or thought they were voting for) but you also need to work to gain the consent of the losers. (See, for example, this Twitter thread on the implementation of the narrow vote to create the Welsh Assembly)

Yes, there would have been intransigent voices on both sides of the debate, be it “the only true Brexit is the hardest possible Brexit” or “the only Brexit I’d accept is no Brexit”, but I think if we’d have started from the position of finding out what people wanted before going out to get it, we’d be in a much better place today. Instead, May went for the strategy of going for what she could get and then declaring that was definitely what people had always wanted from the start. The people wanted Brexit, her deal is Brexit, and as sure as Brexit means Brexit, that means the people would want her deal.

And so we are where we are. Thirty months wasted and almost nothing to show for it except a country that’s stagnating in the full view of the rest of the world while political opinion continues to polarize and the desire to compromise on any side withers away, every side believing that the crisis that comes closer every day will be the opportunity for them to triumph and celebrate their victory from atop the ruins.

We don’t have a time machine, so we can’t take ourselves back to 2016 and start all over again from the beginning, as much as we might like to, but maybe we need to do the next best thing and give ourselves the space to take a step back, look over all that’s come so far and work out where we want to go? There needs to be some sort of compromise where everyone accepts that they’re not going to get everything they want but we could perhaps come up with a solution that might antagonise the least number of people, even if it isn’t one that’s going to be actively pleasing too many. There may have to be sacred cows slain on all sides from No Deal to a People’s Vote to Brexit happening in 2019, but the key is for all sides to realise we’ve had thirty wasted months and we have to go back and do the work we were meant to be doing then, not pretending we can get away with a botch job.

The time for “nothing has changed” has gone. All we need now is people willing to admit that everything has changed.

Used to be many different things, including academic and politician. Now working out what comes next. @nickjbarlow on Twitter and Instagram.