Richard North, 10/05/2017  
 


I'm actually wondering if I dreamt that Mrs May kicked off the general election by calling it the "Brexit election". So far, the Brexit element has been a non-event, with no further (or any) details of the prime minister's strategy on offer.

So unreal has the election become that we have John Harris in the Guardian asking whether we should hail it as "the strangest British contest in living memory". We have a prime minister, he says, who affected to go into the campaign full of vim and vigour, but now seems to recoil from the absolute basics of what electioneering entails.

Referring to the rather strange behaviour of Mrs May's team when she recently visited Cornwall, Harris remarks that, if your people shut journalists from a big regional website into a small room for fear they might video something as banal as a visit to a manufacturer of diving equipment, "you are surely in a very odd place".

To be fair (not that fairness has any place in modern politics), this sort of control freakery came to us in the Blair era, where meetings were rigorously controlled and the sort of vetting one had to undergo to get access to the prime minister put defence screening to shame.

Fresh from her experiences in Cornwall, we had Mrs May up in Yorkshire yesterday, but she was talking about capping energy bills – and avoiding the obvious question that Booker has been framing – as to why we should be grateful to the Government for mitigating a tiny part of the increase brought about by the climate change impositions.

But if Mrs May wasn't talking about this, she wasn't talking about Brexit either. We don't even know that anybody asked about Brexit because, according to the Cornwall journalists, revealing what questions were not allowed was, er … not allowed.

Corbyn, on the other hand, was being open about not talking about Brexit, refusing to say whether he would take the UK out of the EU if he became prime minister. Proving that it is not only the English who do understatement, we thus had Deutsche Welle headline its report: "UK opposition leader Corbyn unclear on Brexit status".

The opposition leader focused on getting "a good deal with Europe", without actually setting out what that might be, other than the usual generalities of "tariff-free access to the EU's single market, the rights of EU nationals living in Britain to be guaranteed and protection for workers' rights".

It was left to aides later to say that Corbyn would definitely take us out. But since we really have no idea of his strategy, it is of very little interest, either way – especially as he is not going to win the election and the only real question is how big the melt-down is going to be.

All this makes for a huge vacuum, where none of the substantive issues are being discussed. The media has lost interest in the detail (not that it ever have a grip on the issues) and nothing serious is coming out of Brussels, with Junker having gone "dark", having apparently upset Angela Merkel with his revelations about The Last Supper with May.

Corbyn, like May, seems intent on turning this into a non-Brexit election, pinpointing tax cheats, "greedy bankers" and "crooked financiers" as his major targets, promising to fleece them for more tax, while ending the "epidemic" of low pay and halting profiteers "feasting" on the NHS – without, of course, mentioning Labour's PFI debt.

Unsurprisingly, the polls are favouring "Theresa May's Team", still obstinately styled as the Conservatives in the public domain, even if the prime minister seems to be trying to distance herself from her own party. Lately, ICM put the Conservatives on 49 percent against Labour on 27, giving the party its largest lead recorded by the polling company since 1983.

Even the New Statesman has given up pretending that Labour is still in the game, instead devoting is space to an open letter to Theresa May, declaring: "A Tory landslide does not equate to a mandate on Brexit". In quite strident tones, it goes on to say:
They say opposition parties don't win elections, governments lose them, but in this instance it was the other way around. You, a highly trained heavyweight boxer, just picked a fight with a frail old man. You won, yes, but it was hardly a fair fight. You called the election when you knew you would win. Your own party passed a law to try to stop this happening, precisely because it is not good for our democracy or the country. You did not win this election, the Labour party lost it. That does not equate to a vote for you. This is not a mandate, and to claim it is would be cowardly and dishonest. You have manipulated the political process – very cleverly – to strengthen your career and wipe out your opposition. That is not a win. It is not a mandate.
There illustrated is a troubling characteristic of contemporary politics – one finds oneself agreeing more with enemies and rivals than one does with what one once imagined to be one's own side. So we have a great deal of sympathy with that view.

On no account can we say (yet) that Mrs May has set out her stall. She seems to be pitching for a blank cheque – the freedom to do what she likes without having to trouble herself by stating in advance what she has in mind. We don't even know if she has a strategy, any more than Corbyn.

Certainly, without a decent opposition, Mrs May is likely to get a free run in Parliament, especially if – as he threatens – Corbyn stays on as opposition leader after a trouncing at the election.

But on Brexit, the real opposition is not in Westminster but in Brussels, where Mrs May's vagueness and direction may meet its Waterloo – with her taking the part of the French, with no Prussians marching to her rescue.

Tucked way down the agenda though is the inkling of a solution though, with EUObserver reporting that there are moves afoot to bring together all the Efta states under one roof, merging the EEA agreement with the Swiss bilaterals to create a comprehensive EU-Efta agreement.

This is the sort of formulation that the EU has been wanting for some time, as part of its overall endeavours to streamline its neighbourhood policy, reducing the diplomatic and administrative burdens currently presented by the plethora of different deals.

A new, revised EEA is precisely the sort of framework into which the UK can slot, and if the agreement is rebranded, with a suitable name change, that would give Mrs May her opportunity to claim that she has negotiated a bespoke agreement, denying that she has gone for the "Norway option", or some such.

With this happening out of the limelight, with the UK media picking the bones from a tedious election campaign, is probably no bad thing. No doubt one or other of our media sages can, at an opportune moment, "discover" this brand new, all-singing and dancing option, then to allow it to sweep the legacy media for its "brilliance" to be proclaimed.

Then, at least, we might be halfway towards a reasonably tolerable solution – tolerable in the sense that it isn't a plane crash Brexit, but still leaving us with the problem of securing an independent existence, free from the grip of Brussels.

For the moment, though, we must reconcile ourselves to the political reality, that nothing will be settled by this election, On 9 June, all the old problems will we waiting for us, just as we left them. Brexit may mean Brexit, but still no one will know what that actually means.






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