Tuesday 25 June 2019

Sean O'Grady: 'Doomed May will one day relish saying 'I told you so' as Boris falls flat on his face'

Brexiteer: Boris Johnson, front-runner to take over from Theresa May as British prime minister, leaves his home in London yesterday. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images
Brexiteer: Boris Johnson, front-runner to take over from Theresa May as British prime minister, leaves his home in London yesterday. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

Sean O'Grady

What will Theresa May do when she ceases to be prime minister and leader of the UK's Conservative Party?

She is dedicated to public service and there are plenty of causes, in politics or outside, she can take up. She will work hard at them.

She may be permitted a sigh of relief, a large Scotch and one of her famous walking holidays to regain her composure. She has had a tough time of it.

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I also think, if I were her, I would be tempted to make much more use of Twitter than she has hitherto. Given the likely course of Brexit, indeed, I would tweet every single day the same message: "I told you so!"

I would get to work on my memoirs - working title 'I told you so!' - and make a well-judged wide-ranging speech at the next Conservative conference. The theme, obviously, would be 'I told you so!'

She might even try playing principal boy in panto at the Desborough Theatre, Maidenhead, with the catchphrase "I told you so!"

Trump-style, Mrs May must take to Twitter every time her record is trashed by her successor, and I think we all know who that is likely to be.

Before long, and long after it could be much use to her, she might well be proved right and, gradually, her personal reputation would be rehabilitated. Headlines such as "Boris returns from Brussels empty-handed"; "EU calls Johnson's bluff"; "Commons blocks BJ plea for hard Brexit" could all be greeted from @realtheresamayMP with the line "I told you so."

There is, in other words, an open assumption that Mrs May failed on Brexit because, in the words of Nigel Evans MP, she didn't believe in it; because, as Nigel Farage claims, she was always "a Remainer", as if it was the mark of Cain; because she was surrounded by some sort of anti-Brexit establishment conspiring to sabotage Brexit, the guilty being the likes of Olly Robbins, Mark Carney and Philip Hammond.

Rather than face reality, this is the "stab in the back" approach to defeat.

Presumably, one way or another, Boris will choose stout believers in Britain to take with him on his trusty RAF BAE 146 jet as he goes to and from Brussels. Good. For then he, they, and the rest of us will be able to see that there is no budging the EU Commission, that the EU has most of the cards in its hands, that we need them more than they need us. The realities behind diplomacy will start to sharpen into focus.

At some point, one can only hope sooner rather than later, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party will realise that Brexit failed under Mrs May because of its own inherent contradictions - and not through any great fault of Mrs May. She made her mistakes, for sure, but the large truths about Brexit are precisely the ones she ran into.

Over two years she negotiated a deal - the only deal and the best deal that could be won, given all the red lines and domestic political pressures, and given the fact that the EU is approximately 10 times bigger than the UK in terms of GDP and population. Mrs May tried to have her cake and eat it, and failed. Whoever comes next will find the same.

Never mind Boris Johnson and his cronies, a negotiating team comprising Margaret Thatcher, William Shakespeare, Henry V, Winston Churchill, JM Keynes and Lord Kitchener could not have got much more out of the European Union than Mrs May did.

It is not about bluster or negotiating techniques, tactics, walking out, playing hard ball, eloquence or, heaven help us, hard work and application or brains. These are marginal. Trade talks are, at bottom, about the facts of economic life and they do not favour the UK.

So, over the months that lie ahead, in the dark recesses of the night, the Brexiteers may come to reflect on what Mrs May always told them - that it was her deal or no Brexit, and that in these past six months of treachery and confusion the Brexiteers might have squandered their one great chance of getting Britain out of Europe.

Mrs May "delivered" Brexit and honoured the vote in the 2016 referendum, flawed and inchoate as it was.

Eventually, parliament will have to choose between revoking Article 50 (either with or without a second referendum) and a hard deal Brexit. The Commons will, when push comes to shove, vote to revoke. Mrs May might be permitted a wry smile when that happens.

Theresa May might, in other words, have been right all along. A woman most probably supplanted by a chauvinistic man with an eccentric view of equality, she should, as she watches him crash and burn, not resist the temptation to mock - I told you so!

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