Brexit started life as a wizard wheeze by David Cameron to silence the awkward squad in his own party. Cunning Plan A was to promise them an ‘in-out’ referendum in the hope that the awkward squad would simply shut up and allow him to get on with the serious business of government without the perpetual whingeing about Europe. Besides, he ‘knew’ that he wasn’t going to win the election outright and therefore would never have to deliver; his coalition partners would simply veto the referendum. The plan went badly wrong when his party accidentally won more seats than he had anticipated, leaving him in a position where the only way of maintaining any semblance of party unity was to attempt to actually deliver on his commitment.
Plan A might not have exactly worked out, but not to worry; not-quite-so-cunning Plan B was to breeze over to Brussels, pretend to negotiate a bit, gain a few minor concessions, and then hold a referendum. He ‘knew’ that the EU was just sitting there waiting to give yet more special terms to the UK, and he ‘knew’ that he was going to get a thumping majority for Remain. He then hoped that the awkward squad would simply shut up and allow him to get on with the serious business of government without the perpetual whingeing about Europe. His ability to predict, let alone control, the outcome of a public vote proved as reliable as ever, and Plan B also bit the dust. His Plan C was not really cunning at all – scarper and leave someone else to clear up the mess.
It was left to his successor to come up with Plan D. After a period of umming and ahing, and after having kicked off the process of triggering Article 50 without a clue as to the end point, she decided that the way to get around her internal party divisions was to hold another general election. Displaying the same acute predictive ability for which her predecessor was, rightly, not at all famous, she ‘knew’ that she would win a large enough majority to be able to silence the awkward squad and allow her to get on with the serious business of government without the perpetual whingeing about Europe. Plan D went the same way as Plans A and B. At this point, she might have been best advised to revisit Plan C, which was the only one that actually worked for her predecessor, but instead she came up with the ill-fated Plan E.
Plan E was the transparently uncunning approach of telling both sides of her own party, repeatedly and in public, that if they didn’t do as she wished the other side would win in the hope that neither would be clever enough to work out that she was actually proposing a route which none of them supported. She might even have got away with it, if she’d opted for a short, sharp and decisive negotiation immediately after the election whilst MPs were still shell-shocked enough to have simply voted it through. However, when thinking about Theresa May, ‘decisive’ isn’t exactly the first word that jumps into mind.
In fairness, though, there is one thing that the PM has learnt from the common factor in the failure of Plans A, B, and D, and it is this: for a Tory PM with a Plan, allowing people to vote is a very, very bad idea. The people have developed an unfortunate habit of not producing the answer that the Tories want. Thus we arrive at today’s news, in which the Foreign Secretary tells us that the absolute top priority for the Government is to prevent the European Parliament elections from taking place in the UK. Not to look after the economic interests of the people they represent, not to end the shambolic process which they have kicked off, not to sort out problems with health or education. No, just to prevent people having a vote in an election which might not – and probably would not – produce the answer that they want. If the elections take place, the probability is that the Tories will be badly mauled (or even ‘marmalized’, according to some). They don’t have a policy on which they can agree, and even if they did, there’s no guarantee that those elected would support it. At best, half the members elected from one of the parties would be supportive of the May deal, and the rest from that party, and all those from other parties, would be against it. Allowing a vote, in whatever proxy form, on her plan is almost certain to show how little support it has.
That, of course, brings us right back to the beginning. Avoiding an election is, just like the original conception of Brexit, all about the Tory Party. It is, though, already far too late to silence the awkward squad. It’s a lost cause; continuing to fight yesterday’s battles may be the prime interest of some of the awkward squad, but it’s already way too late to restore any semblance of unity to a disintegrating party.