Much has been made of Prime Minister May’s recent speech on her plans for leaving the European Union. Her strong words have transformed her into something of an unlikely hero for Brexiteers; Theresa May the Remain campaigner, elected on a manifesto of remaining in the Single Market and leader of the party which pioneered the Britain’s integration into the EU from the days of Heath, to Thatcher, to Cameron. Theresa May, the unelected Prime Minister who now is trusted with implementing a policy she opposed for all her political life and, until a few months ago, actively campaigned against.
Her tough talk may indeed have won her the support of Eurosceptics who, until a few months ago, would never have given an ear to the Conservative Party. But can she be trusted to follow through her tough talk with action? To judge, we should consider May’s political record and afterwards some very important, yet overlooked, caveats in her speech.
A CAREER OF TOUGH TALK AND NO RESULTS
When Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010, she took that position on the back of David Cameron’s election promise that the Conservative Party would reduce annual immigration to the “tens of thousands” . Of course we can now look back on how laughable such a promise was and Theresa May, ultimately responsible for securing our borders as Home Secretary, presided over immigration figures of around ten times that estimate. Last year, May’s last year as Home Secretary, immigration hit an all-time record of 650,000; that’s substantially more than the entire population of Glasgow which crossed our borders to live and work in the UK in a single year under a Conservative government .
In a statement that would make David Cameron (aptly and amusingly dubbed “Mr. Slippery” by conservative commentator Peter Hitchens) blush, May brushed aside criticisms of this blatant and spectacular policy failure on the grounds that her party’s manifesto pledge was an “aim” rather than a “promise” . And as the tough talk, promises and excuses continued to flood in, annual net migration throughout May’s tenure as Home Secretary not only failed to be reduced to tens of thousands, but actually increased by that amount from a starting figure many times greater.
Perhaps we will be told that Brexit, too, was an “aim” rather than a “promise”.
In her brief spell to date as Prime Minister, has May given us any reason to believe she might have toughened her stance in wake of the Brexit vote? Not really. All we know is that the 3.6 million EU residents currently living in the UK will have permanent residency rights to live in the UK by (or rather, if) the time we leave the EU in 2019, in no small part due to May’s decision to endlessly delay triggering Article 50 . We have been told that 600,000 EU nationals living in the UK without any residency rights at that time will still be offered the right of permanent UK residency, despite there being no obligation whatsoever on the government to do this, and the fact that it rather makes a mockery of their manifesto commitments on immigration. But such is the way of things with the Conservative Party.
MAY’S GREAT GET-OUT CLAUSE
Relatively little attention has been given to a hugely important part of May’s speech: that outlining plans for a vote in both houses of parliament on the final terms of any deal to leave the EU. She claims in her speech that she chose to do this out of a respect for our traditions of parliamentary sovereignty; despite, with no hint of irony, at the same time fighting a court case at the Supreme Court to deny parliament a role in the triggering of Article 50 and, more significantly, ignoring the fact that the public elected a parliament full of pro-EU MPs.
Do not mistake what we say here as in any way showing pro-EU or anti-Brexit sentiments. The Unionist Party fully supports Britain’s exit from the European Union and the Single Market, but we know that these things can only truly be achieved when we elect a parliament with the will to do so; one that will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act rather than by negotiating on the EU’s terms through Article 50.
The referendum was always a ploy to kill off UKIP and the wider movement to leave the EU: if Remain won, then the pro-EU establishment would put the issue to rest for a while at least; if Leave won, then the Brexit process would be controlled entirely by a pro-Remain parliament, cabinet and Prime Minister, as indeed it now is.
The significance of May’s entirely unnecessary (from her perspective) decision to put the final terms of Brexit to a vote in parliament becomes clear when one looks at parliament’s composition. 479 out of 650 MPs declared their support for Remain, compared to just 158 for Leave. Of Conservative MPs, 185 backed Remain compared to 138 for Leave. Of cabinet members, twenty-four backed Remain while just six backed Leave . And the head herself, Prime Minister May, was of course a Remain supporter and active pro-EU campaigner.
May knows full well that an overwhelmingly pro-EU parliament is unlikely to approve any sort of deal that amounts to a ‘hard Brexit’ (or what should really simply be called ‘Brexit’). The very slim majority which her party holds in the Commons would require all but a handful of her 329 MPs to back the proposals. It should also be noted that these MPs hail largely from England’s most pro-EU regions of London and the affluent South. The pressure they feel from their constituents may well prove greater than the party whip; they will be mindful of the fate of Zach Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election, who was punished by his very pro-EU constituents when he lost his seat in a shock defeat to the Liberal Democrats which saw a phenomenal swing in their favour of over 20%. Do not fall under any allusions that only Corbynite Labour would be fearful of a snap election.
The reality of parliament’s overwhelmingly pro-EU stance has already led to talk of a snap election, which would in effect be a referendum on the Brexit deal . For the hugely pro-EU political establishment, of which Theresa May is a part, this is why the decision to put the deal before parliament is their great get-out clause. The vested interests know this – it is no coincidence that the value of the pound rocketed against the dollar the moment Theresa May stated that the deal would go before parliament, and what to them was the spectre of a meaningful Brexit became a more distant prospect .
It may, in the very possible event of parliament blocking a ‘hard Brexit’ deal, not actually lead to a snap election, as both Labour and the Conservatives have good reason to be hesitant to hold one. It does, however, seem quite plausible that the government may choose to put the vote “to the people” in the form of another referendum. This could be a win-win scenario for the pro-EU establishment: the aggressive anti-Brexit crusade by the media has already shifted public opinion away from Brexit. The invention of the false dichotomy between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, when of course ‘soft’ Brexit is no Brexit at all, would likely lead to public opinion shifting towards ‘soft’ Brexit, and therefore remaining in the Single Market, in the event of a second referendum on the terms of the deal. And this referendum could safely happen without our overwhelmingly pro-EU MPs, cabinet members or Prime Minister having to worry about losing their seats over the matter.
Other doubts about May’s commitment to Brexit abound. She has said that she will lead Britain out of the Single Market, but that she wants to retain access to it: whether it’s membership or access, either way we are surely participating in it and there must be concern that this play on words is simply a fudge to keep us ensnared in all its mechanisms. Events outwith the UK may prove fortuitous to May: the migrant crisis has already seen border controls re-emerge within Europe; if these were to be expanded and formalised to even a small degree, could May claim that since immigration was the big issue behind the EU debate, we could happily (to her mind) remain in a reformed EU and enjoy the best of both worlds with both trade and a degree of control over our borders?
All of this confusion and doubt could have been avoided if we had stuck to our principles of parliamentary democracy and sought to achieve Britain’s exit from the European Union and the Single Market through the proper channels: by electing a pro-Brexit parliament, cabinet and Prime Minister with the will and capacity to carry out their mandate. As we know all too well in Scotland, referendums are inherently divisive, chaotic and inconclusive, and leave politicians with plenty of room for trickery and obfuscation. May talked the talk on immigration as Home Secretary while overseeing record levels of immigration; those who feel reassured by her talking the talk on Brexit should think twice before they grow complacent.