Prime minister’s speech a form of national sabotage

The (U.K.) Guardian, March 21: When she put herself forward to lead the Conservative party in 2016, Theresa May cast herself as part of “my party’s proud philosophical tradition of one nation”. She said it would be her task to deliver Brexit. But, she added, she would “govern not just in the interests of 17 million leave voters or 16 million remain voters but in the interests of our whole country”. And she stressed that “what government does isn’t a game; it’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives”.

It is impossible to square those intentions of three years ago with the televised address Mrs May made to the nation on Wednesday night. At the start of her broadcast, she referred to only one of her 2016 promises – the one to deliver on Brexit. She then ignored – in fact, she spurned and trashed – all of the others.

Time and again Mrs May addressed her viewers as “you”. “You” have had enough. “You” are tired of this. “You” want it over and done with. And she ended by claiming: “I agree. I am on your side.” So whose side is that? And who is this “you” to whom she spoke?

It wasn’t the “one nation” with which she identified herself three years ago. That nation remains divided about Brexit. It wasn’t the majority of British voters, since the polls show that views are reversed from 2016, with a majority in favour of remaining in the EU, not leaving it. Nor was it major parts of that nation – Scotland, London and Northern Ireland – that were not part of that “you” in the first place and certainly aren’t now. The hundreds of thousands who will head to London to march for a second referendum on Saturday are not in that “you” either. Mrs May is not on their side.

A prime minister is a national leader. Mrs May has occasionally said she wants to bring Britain together. But this week’s broadcast read the last rites over that dream. She is only interested in half of the country. She has no concern with the other half. She treats the millions who disagree with Brexit and her handling of it as if they simply do not exist. She does not hear them. She does not see them. For her, they are simply not there. But – memo to Mrs May – we always were and we always will be.

Hung parliament

It follows that Mrs May’s attempt on Wednesday to cast the Brexit crisis as parliament versus the people is a lie. It’s a lie because the divide over Brexit runs deep through the whole nation, not between parliament and the people. It’s a lie because the nation elected a hung parliament in 2017, not the rubber-stamping body for which she campaigned. It’s a lie because the failure to agree a Brexit deal is at least as much the fault of Mrs May’s blinkered idea of Brexit and her refusal to compromise and adapt as it is the fault of MPs. MPs – the much derided political class – are doing the job that sovereign parliamentary democracy requires them to do. They should be defended not denounced, celebrated not pilloried, for that. It’s Mrs May who has blown it, not MPs.

On Thursday in Brussels Mrs May was on course to get a conditional and shorter version of the limited Brexit extension she requested from the EU. Not for the first time, the EU was going out of its way to assist her. But how did this week’s broadcast help her to deliver on that bargain? If she wants MPs who have twice voted against her deal to back it in its latest form next week, she should not insult and antagonise them in this way. These are dumb tactics.

So also is the way that she has unilaterally put the issue of her own leadership on the table at a pivotal time. Mrs May has many failings. Yet until this week she had managed to keep the focus where it mattered, on Brexit. By setting herself against MPs she has raised the chances that she will be deposed, while doing nothing to boost the chances of her deal.

We face a national emergency. A week from now, Britain will leave the EU without a deal unless parliament can prevent it from happening. The stakes are massive. Recall Mrs May’s earlier words. “What government does isn’t a game. It’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives.” Back then she spoke true. Now she has lost the plot. To run the country to the very brink, with all it entails for our people, and then to blame parliament for it, is shabby, shameful and a form of national sabotage.

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