Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Will the real Theresa May stand up?

On the eve of the biggest battle over Brexit, her party can't decide if she did her best or tried to frustrate it

British Prime Minister Theresa May is doing something politicians almost never do: She is charging into a battle she will almost certainly lose. Parliament is widely expected to reject her Brexit deal on 11 December.

That has led to massive speculation about what comes next. Does she have a plan to survive and lead the
aftermath or, like the Spartan Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, will she sacrifice herself and her troops for a position she can’t hold? Many are advising her to pull the vote, but she has so far resisted.

How the weeks ahead play out will depend on which of the two critiques of May, from within her party, wins out. Both sets of Conservatives hold that the deal she has brought home after two years of negotiations is untenable. However, there the agreement ends.

One narrative holds that a combination of missteps led to a Franken-deal that must be put out of its misery. There are two versions of this narrative. The more charitable one says May, faced with mission impossible, did her best to protect jobs and the economy, while delivering on the referendum vote for more control.

A less charitable reading is that May’s leadership has seen one blunder after another, from the premature triggering of the two-year negotiating window to the failure to prepare properly for exiting without a deal. Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King, writing for Bloomberg Opinion last week, called her deal a betrayal on a par with the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

Conservatives who subscribe to this argument may disagree
over whether May is stoic or stubborn, incompetent or outgunned, but put them together long enough in a room and they would
probably be able to agree on some way forward—most likely
without her. They may hate parts of the deal, but they tend to be pragmatists.

The other narrative is much darker; its proponents judge that the deal is poisonous by design and intended to undermine Brexit itself. This view began as a whisper, but has grown noticeably more strident. It’s the kind of allegation that could become the seed of a populist backlash under the right circumstances.

There are different variations, but this view holds that the deal is the product of sabotage from within: A government that never really wanted to leave the European Union didn’t so much negotiate with the bloc as conspire with it to frustrate Brexit, soften it, or ensure it never happens.

The historian David Starkey wrote last weekend that this should be known as the Second Brexit after what he calls the First Brexit, Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church. Then, the king couldn’t get the pope to agree with his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, and therefore he found a way to divorce Rome first. That break “set England on a new course that has lasted to the present day and provides much of the emotional underpinning to the Second Brexit", wrote Starkey.

It was a messy, drawn-out affair and Starkey likens May to Henry’s ambitious administrator, Cardinal Wolsey, whose heart really wasn’t in the divorce from Catherine. Starkey’s verdict is devastating: May, like Wolsey, is placing her own survival in power above the “Great Matter" that is being decided. That, he writes, is the difference between “Tragedy and Farce—or between Brexit Achieved and Brexit Ballsed-up".

Others take it further. Spy novelist and political commentator Frederick Forsyth wrote in the Express that it can only be “that pure sabotage must be at the root of the litany of disasters that shroud the Brexit project".

The conspiracy theory was even mooted in Tuesday’s epic debate in Parliament by Boris Johnson, a politician adored by the grassroots, but distrusted by many in his parliamentary party.

Conspiracy theories, once sprouted, tend to grow fast. Bill Cash, one of the longest-serving eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers and chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, has spurred this on by announcing an inquiry into the “conduct, processes and outcomes of negotiations". It will be the first of many.

Of course, May, in her future memoirs, might accuse the conspiracy theorists of being blind to the reality of asymmetrical negotiations, and seeking a version of Brexit that people didn’t vote for and which would be harmful.

Future historians will argue over it; there will no doubt be blame to share. They might even find that May—dutiful, pragmatic, stubborn as hell—isn’t the opportunistic Cardinal Wolsey at all, but more like Sir Thomas More, the Catholic philosopher, lawyer and adviser to Henry VIII who refused to compromise his beliefs in order to satisfy the King.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, Wolsey says to More: “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman."

“When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties," replies More, “they lead their country by a short route to chaos." More, of course, was executed.

Brexiters believe that in the long term, Britain will thrive
outside the EU, just as it did after Henry’s break with Rome. They damn May’s moral squint. But if they see her as unwilling to
yield to the Great Matter at hand, May looks back at them and sees tribalism masquerading as high principle. She sees the severed head of Anne Boleyn and thinks of people who would be hurt by their vision.

Whatever happens after Tuesday, it’s pretty clear she will do all she can to avoid the “short route to chaos". After that, all bets are off. bloomberg view

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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