Brexit is a disaster, but Theresa May is magnificent in her ability to keep calm and carry on
- David Dodwell says he may not agree with the British prime minister, but has come to admire her patience, resilience and focus on her country’s best interests
I have, for over a year, studiously avoided the British national catastrophe we call Brexit. As one of Theresa May’s derided “citizens of nowhere”, I have kept my counsel, and watched in sadness over one of the most brutally challenging and counterproductive political negotiations of our lifetime, pondering over the perverse shortcomings of democratic politics that have facilitated such self-harm.
I have put aside the moments of naive wishful thinking that have, from time to time, suggested that the nation of my birth might somehow snap out of its consensus over the inevitability of Brexit, and am reconciled to May’s pilgrimage this weekend to the special European Union summit to endorse a “soft Brexit” deal that in four months may seal Britain’s separation from the EU.
Just as I was for a time wishfully thinking that Britain’s electorate might somehow reverse the June 23, 2016, referendum decision, so I still believe that May is indulging in wishful thinking when she talks of her vision of “a once-in-a-generation chance to build a new future for our nation: the chance to shape a stronger, fairer country” and be “a true global champion of free trade”.
Whatever May’s optimistic words, I see a country profoundly divided. Despite the crude conclusion of the 2016 referendum, I see the young, the professionals and most people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London still wishing to remain in the EU. I see the old, the less well-off and those living in small provincial towns still supporting Brexit in order to “take back control” – code for stopping immigration and nostalgically restoring the British empire.
Pending next week’s updated assessment of the long-term impact of separation, I remain gloomily reconciled to the reality that Brexit will ultimately reduce the UK’s gross domestic product by 4 to 5 per cent, that many jobs will be lost to the European continent, and that a difficult decade lies ahead in which Britain’s civil servants will be consumed by the tortuous task of disentanglement from Europe, distracted from the pressing challenges of improving education, rejuvenating a creaking and bankrupt national health system and addressing the challenges of elderly care.
Yet, through all this gloom, one thing above all else has continued to impress me: the indefatigable, selfless persistence of May, who most British voters would, three years ago, have dismissed as one of the most improbable of British prime ministers. No one better epitomises the adage: “Keep calm and carry on”.
Watch: May dances onstage at Conservative Party Conference
As she walked onto the stage at a Confederation of British Industry conference on Monday, to sell Brexit to a restive business community, in a jaunty rust-coloured floral blazer by French designer Paule Ka that cost £673 (US$863) and clanking a Mona Lisa bracelet, it was impossible not to be impressed.
Here was a woman pilloried in Britain’s pro-Brexit press, who lives with daily rumours of imminent overthrow, with open hostility from scions of her own party (eight of her cabinet ministers have resigned on Brexit issues in the past year, two of them just last week), who at best is getting a couple of hours sleep every night around endless redrafting of the 585-page Brexit divorce deal. Yet, she spoke calmly, cogently and with good humour not only about Brexit, but about tackling Britain’s challenges ahead.
While I am not, and will never be, a Conservative, I find May’s ability not to rise to the taunts of rivals in her own ranks to be nothing short of politically magnificent. Apart from the possibility that she could be overthrown as leader, she must put aside that parliamentarians might vote down her Brexit proposals, probably on December 10, or that she might be forced into a general election that could put in jeopardy the past two years of gruelling negotiations.
Even if Britain’s Parliament, and the EU’s 27-member economies, grudgingly agree to her draft divorce agreement, this is just the start: the detailed negotiations on the future nature of Britain’s trade and economic relations with the EU – from fisheries to Gibraltar – have yet to begin, and are likely to take years.
May became prime minister unwelcomed – accepting a poisoned chalice that none of the pretenders to Conservative Party power wished to accept. She faces the very real likelihood that once the Brexit deal is done, she will be gracelessly shown the door.
Yet, she has accepted the job, and rides over the daily insults, in good grace and humour. One senses that she will also depart in good grace, clear that she has done her best to manage one of the most thankless tasks in modern politics. As Bronwen Maddox at Britain’s Institute for Government noted last week: “She offered to pick her way between positions that appeared irreconcilable in search of a middle ground that might not actually exist.”
As historians look back on the tragic and improbable Brexit story, I sense they will see the cause of democracy badly served and an economy harmed. They will see communities divided, and politicians hopelessly inadequate to resolve the serious challenges they faced – farce masking tragedy.
But in May, they may see an exception, no matter how brief her period in power and how confined to the role of “Brexit negotiator-in-chief”. At a time of aggressive and counterproductive petulance in politics, her patience, resilience, and single-minded focus on Britain’s best interests have set her apart. I may be less impressed by her fashion sense, or her “Dancing Queen” moments, but at least her quiet sartorial flourishes provide glimpses into a more colourful personality than the task in hand allows. I may not agree with her, but gosh, I admire the way she goes about her politics.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global and regional challenges, today from a “citizen of nowhere” point of view