The truce didn’t last long. But the lies, I suspect, will go on and on for a long time to come.
At the end of Theresa May’s much-heralded “big speech” in Florence, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond made a big, theatrical show of “unity”. They were seen walking out of the meeting as if they were the best of friends. Barely 24 hours later, civil war over Europe had broken out again in the Tory Party. It must have been one of the shortest-lived truces in politics.
This time, hostilities resumed mainly over the length of any transition period following the UK’s planned 2019 exit from the EU. Johnson’s backers claimed his one-man alternative post-exit “vision” in the previous Saturday’s Telegraph had “saved” Britain from purgatory: an even longer transition period, wanted by Hammond and nearly all of British business. His opponents deny this, of course… and so, on and on it goes.
David Cameron’s desire, when announcing an “in-out” referendum, was that this would lance the boil of the Tories’ eternal war over the EU. As was obvious at the time, this was never going to happen. To mix my metaphors, they just can’t stop picking at the sore.
May’s “Big” Speech
So much for the truce. What about May’s speech itself? Well, the tone was more conciliatory, which is welcome. But what about the content? Well, “big” it wasn’t.
We did learn three things which help to clarify the government’s position – a bit. Firstly, EU citizens’ rights will be drafted into the exit legislation: no change of stance, just a bit more reassurance for the millions fearful for their future. Also, at last, a statement recognising the reality about the UK’s financial obligations on leaving, but with the figures still vague. And finally, the two-year transition period – the very subject over which new internecine fighting has resumed. But there was nothing at all to replace the “magical thinking” about the Irish border – one of the key sticking points currently.
Perhaps worst of all, there was nothing new at all said about the long-term relationship Britain desired: the “vision thing”, if you like. The reason for this omission is obvious: Cabinet members are still fighting like cats in a bag on this key strategic point. May’s lack of authority and weakened position following the recent election means the most difficult question is still a can licked down the road. But this is the key point which is delaying business investment decisions and increasing the risk of multinationals moving their businesses out of the UK – to Britain’s permanent, long-term detriment.
Instead, we got the usual vacuous stuff about close relationships and advantageous trade deals. These fine phrases are just a more diplomatic variation on the “cake-and-eat-it” position that we all know is impossible. Reaction from the EU and other national leaders is, unsurprisingly, underwhelming.
And finally, a word about the venue: Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. More specifically, in a side-building of a fine Renaissance church just a stone’s throw from Florence’s main railway station. (May as vicar’s daughter continues to show!)This location, at least, was convenient for the British journalists catching the train from Pisa Airport, the nearest with regular flights from the UK. For this appears to have been an entirely British affair: British Prime Minister, three Cabinet members (all flown in at UK taxpayers’ expense) and a bunch of UK journalists. No one from other countries seemed particularly bothered to hear what May had to say. The Germans, in particular, had much more important matters on their minds.
Yet, despite the magnificent Renaissance surroundings, the drab choice of set meant that the TV visuals could just have easily have been done in a warehouse in Coventry. May’s advisers had done their research on European history. The 17th century Renaissance was the precursor, a century later, to the European Enlightenment. It’s a pity May wasted the opportunity to give us any enlightenment on the direction in which she is aiming to lead the country.
I’ve entitled this piece “Truce and Lies”. As we’ve seen, the truce didn’t work. But we can confidently expect the lies to continue. Johnson’s Telegraph article, mentioned above, repeated the lie about the EU’s £350 million a week and the NHS, which brought him a strongly-worded rebuke from the head of the UK Statistics Authority. The article was a flagrant act of insubordination and a clear breach of Cabinet collective responsibility. In normal times, this would have led to instant dismissal by the PM. But, of course, these are not normal times. May is trapped by the arithmetic in the House of Commons and a prisoner of the extremist Leave wing of her party.
Talking of which, I fear it’s some time before those extremists, Johnson, Fox, Gove, Leadsom et al, stop repeating the ultimate EU-related lie. That’s the one that says there’s a future for the UK outside the EU which is better than if we were to remain. That’s logically impossible: there’s no queue of countries lining up to do deals to replace the national income to be lost through exiting the EU, for example. I can only hope there’s a scenario where we change course before too much damage is done.
I’m moving towards the end of my seventh decade on this planet. I cannot remember a time when we have been so badly governed as we are now. Or when we were faced with a more important set of political choices: the biggest since the end of World War II. We need a proper government, led by people of ability and vision. The current ragbag of the inadequate, the incompetent and the downright delusional is just about as far away from that as we could possibly get. How did we let the Tories get us into this monumental mess?