The one question I’m almost always asked at panel events and speaking engagements nowadays, is why I support Brexit when, by my own admission, I was aware of the “extraordinary impact it could have on the political, constitutional, geographical integrity of the United Kingdom”.
I always give the same answers. The EU has developed far beyond its original concept and is well down the road to becoming a super state, complete with its own currency, parliament, flag, anthem, foreign policy, standing army et al. And I have long acknowledged that the campaigns by nationalists in Northern Ireland, Scotland and even parts of England were not, irrespective of the referendum result, going to go away. I don’t have buyer’s remorse. I don’t regret my decision to vote Leave.
But Thursday’s local government election results struck me as odd. Since June 23 we have been led to believe that there is an ever-growing number of people who now regret voting Leave and yet it was the Conservatives – under a leader accused of wanting a ‘hard’ Brexit – who had a very good day. The Lib-Dems, whose leader supports a second referendum, didn’t make anything resembling progress; and, more worryingly for them, didn’t gain from Labour’s dismal performance. The SNP didn’t slip, but nor did they build. Meanwhile, Ukip, the hardest of the hard, received the Wac-A-Mole treatment from the electorate. None of this means that Theresa May will return with a thumping majority on June 8 (although she looks unlikely to have less than 50 or so), but it does suggest that the Remainers have a huge problem.
Anyway, I remain to be convinced that May is, in fact, a genuine believer in a hard Brexit. I’ve always thought that her instincts favoured a measured, nuanced, reasonably amicable divorce. But that was not going to be possible with a strong Ukip at her heels and an uncomfortably small Conservative majority leaving too much power in the hands of a bunch of backbench rebels (with safe majorities in Leave constituencies) and an over-reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs.
In a column last July I argued that the divorce proceedings would “require an early general election because the exit from the EU requires a new government with a clear mandate and a manifesto. Just appointing a new prime minister, who then shuffles the existing MPs, won’t be enough”.
May will have known that her predecessors from Thatcher onwards – Major, Hague, Smith, Howard and Cameron – were crippled by divisions over the EU: so trying to negotiate a deal from a position of weakness, fear and reliance on others was never going to work.
If she has killed off Ukip – and Thursday’s results suggest she has – and guaranteed a strong majority for herself in the process, then her ability to follow her own instincts is immeasurably bolstered.
She has also bought herself – assuming everything goes according to plan – an extra five years as prime minister.
Her other political instinct is that of a pan-UK unionist: and she certainly doesn’t want the UK to disintegrate under her watch. David Cameron was a lazy unionist: the sort of leader who played into the hands of the SNP in the first Scottish referendum and then, having learned no lessons, played into the hands of Ukip in the EU referendum. He never understood the passion that underpins personal identity for millions of people and always assumed that they’d always settle for the status quo rather than take a big risk.
May, or so it seems to me (and I was lukewarm about her when she replaced Cameron) understands that passion. She knows that a prime minister who believes in pan-UK unionism has to do more than match the passion of SF and SNP nationalism, as well as setting out a coherent, attractive, welcoming alternative to it. Like Thatcher she never really expected to be prime minister: and, like Thatcher, she will be prepared to take risks.
She has triumphed in her first election. If June 8 delivers the sort of victory that Conservatives haven’t had since 1987 the party will allow her to follow her instincts.
Her main task, however, is to convince the UK that it can survive outside the EU. The sky didn’t fall in on June 24. It isn’t going to fall in. The EU/Nato/UN/USA etc do not want an isolated, isolationist UK. Some key figures at the heart of the EU project have said some remarkably stupid things, but they are not going to punish us or push us to outer darkness. Partly because it doesn’t suit their long-term interests; partly because there are still very influential voices in the UK, the EU and further afield who will caution against that form of stupidity; and partly because they will, I think, find May much easier to deal with after June 8.
Ten months of dust and noise from the fallout of June 23 has made it extraordinarily difficult to see the lay of the land and chart a coherent course.
But a strong, confident UK government negotiating a consensual exit (which is what I have always argued for) will clarify key issues and allow both sides to cut the sort of deal that is in the best interests of everyone.
Yes, there are huge challenges ahead for the UK; but there would also have been huge problems had we tried to stay in the EU while insisting that we wanted continuing opt-outs on currency, foreign policy, a standing army and a growing pile of other concerns. Also, I believe – I really do – that a strong UK outside a EU which has a mountain of its own problems to deal with, has a better chance of remaining unified.