May conning voters by saying she wants to talk about Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 02.06.2017

The prime minister is pretending that she wants the election campaign to focus on Brexit. But she doesn’t.

Theresa May is refusing to spell out how Brexit will impact the economy, security, migration and our place in the world – and the media isn’t forcing her to either. Given the enormity of what is at stake, this is making a mockery of democracy.

What the prime minister wants to do is keep trumpeting how she’ll be a strong leader, standing up to our European partners in the coming talks – and how Jeremy Corbyn will be weak.

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That line, rehearsed in May’s speech in Teesside on Thursday, may have worked a month ago. But since her own u-turn on the so-called dementia tax, she looks far from strong and stable. What’s more, the Labour leader’s more emollient style could well get a better deal than the prime minister’s antagonistic approach. Calling our partners “aggressive”, accusing them of meddling in our election and revelling in being called a “bloody difficult woman” hardly establishes the basis for constructive talks.

But it’s the failure to focus on the substance of what Brexit means which is really short-changing the voters. It amounts to asking for a blank cheque which May only plans to cash once she is safely back in Downing Street.

Start with the economy. The prime minister’s plan to pull us out of the European Union’s single market, which is responsible for half our trade, is bad enough. Why doesn’t anybody ask her how she plans to find money for the NHS, schools and old people if that ruins the economy? For that matter, why doesn’t anybody ask Corbyn the same question, as he too wants us to quit the single market?

But it is May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra that is really worrying. Her manifesto had the cheek to say: “When things spiral out of control, it is ordinary working people who are hit hardest.”

A journalist did try to get her to spell out the dire circumstances of “no deal” at the press conference following yesterday’s speech, but she brushed the question aside. The media as a whole could do more  to make her to explain how quitting without a deal wouldn’t lead to things spiralling out of control – how it wouldn’t result in chaos at our borders, a regulatory no-man’s land for businesses trading with the EU and the imposition of tariffs on some products.

Storming out of the EU with no deal wouldn’t just clobber the economy. It would also damage our security. In the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack, keeping the public safe is a high priority. Being in the EU helps us do that in so many ways: we share intelligence via Europol, we consult the Schengen Information System database to help us make arrests and we extradite suspects using the European Arrest Warrant – to name just three.

It will be hard to keep access to these vital tools given May’s refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the EU courts post-Brexit. So why is nobody asking her if she’s prepared to make an exception to this red line when it comes to fighting terrorism – or how she expects to cooperate at all on crime if we crash out with no deal?

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Keeping Britain safe isn’t just about combatting jihadis. It also requires diplomacy. Our neighbourhood is increasingly dangerous. As you cast your eyes beyond the EU, there is a boiling cauldron of trouble in every direction: Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is an unreliable ally who hasn’t stood up to Vladimir Putin and wants to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement.

The prime minister says she wants to forge a deep and special relationship with the EU post Brexit. But Angela Merkel isn’t impressed. Last week the German chancellor said the EU could no longer completely depend on us or the Americans. So why is nobody asking May how tearing up our relationship with the EU would increase our influence rather than marginalise us further?

The Tory manifesto was littered with references to “our precious union”. But if pulling out of the single market damages the economy and quitting the EU’s customs union, another May policy, means border controls are imposed in Ireland, nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland will have a field day. A chaotic no-deal Brexit would be a gift-horse to the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein which want to break the UK apart.

So why is nobody asking the prime minister how her “no deal” threat is consistent with saving our “precious union” – and how exactly she plans to avoid border controls in Ireland?

Last year’s referendum turned largely on migration. Brexiters whipped the voters into a frenzy, with lurid tales of millions of Turks crowding our NHS accident and emergency units. May is promising to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. But what is her plan to achieve a target the Tories have already pledged in two manifestoes and missed?

The prime minister has a few policies to cut non-EU migration, such as charging businesses more for employing foreigners. But on EU migration, her manifesto contains just one bland sentence: “We will… establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs.”

Why is May allowed to get away without spelling out her policies on this and all the other Brexit-related issues that are so vital to our future?

It’s not easy for politicians to force her, given that May has refused to take part in debates. Her robotic responses make it hard for the media to get a grip on her. Yesterday, Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick asked in exasperation: “Aren’t you doing badly because all you come out with is cliches?”

But the media could and should be doing a better job of grilling her. After all, if the prime minister continues to evade questions, journalists have a perfect comeback: “You called this snap election and you said it was going to be about Brexit. By failing to say what you will do, you are conning the public.”

Edited by Alex Spillius

4 Responses to “May conning voters by saying she wants to talk about Brexit”

  • The PM and the media keep referring to getting a ‘successful’ deal with the EU, but most people are still in the dark, what a ‘successful deal’ means in reality.

    It can probably be agreed that as low a one-off financial settlement with the EU would amount to success, and that an agreement to prevent a ‘hard’ Irish border would amount to a success.
    After that, it all becomes a matter of interpretation, which the May Government would, no doubt, exploit for their own particular version of ‘success’.

    For the 4-5 million UK and EU nationals currently left in limbo either side of the Channel, being allowed to stay will not be a ‘success’ if they are denied access to healthcare, their pensions are frozen, frozen out of the employment market or forced to live in separate countries from their partner or children.
    For tourists, having to apply for visas in advance, even having to pay for them, or having no further access to the EHIC healthcard would not be examples of a ‘success’.
    Most crucially, exclusion of tariff-free access to the European market, with the imposition of new redtape and bureaucracy in the way of trade, would certainly not represent ‘successes’.
    Unfortunately, electors have not much more to go on than pure hunches as to what would be in store for them, such is the May Government’s aversion to transparency. The Labour opposition is preferable in that they have said they would not resort to the near suicidal act of walking away without a deal, although, they too have not been crystal clear in their intentions.
    Electors are going into this election like they went into the Referendum, without the facts. In the words of a famous columnist, now deceased,”‘I think we should be told”.

  • In case the Conservative party will negotiate with Barnier c.s. Just forget any success in terms of good for the U.K. The ground is too toxic already now, after the blinkeredness about what could be expected and the silly walk diplomacy of May, Davis and Johnson. The situation got worse after Trump’s idiocy yesterday as Britain as The Ally has become tainted with not being all there even further. Certainly after May’s slow and diminutive response.
    So really, assuming Brexit does go ahead, Corbyn, strange though it sounds, is probably the only person who can wangle at least something out of the EU. But as the EU is doing since about ten Months already, it would be smart if there was any indication that the U.K. Is preparing for certain worst case scenarios to become reality.