Selling time. What passes for Theresa May’s strategy

Selling time. What passes for Theresa May’s strategy

Picture credit: Sunil Prasannan

We spend all our lives buying and selling time. We sell our time to employers. We trade time for convenience when deciding where we live and what we are prepared to pay for that.

Oddly, we talk of buying time but we never talk of selling time, even though we do both. This is a gap in the English language. For the last few months that has been all that Theresa May has been doing.

After Theresa May lost the Conservatives’ overall majority in the unnecessary 2017 general election, it was apparent that she had lost authority. She successfully bought time in the election’s wake (which on this occasion was the wake of a funeral and not of a boat) by telling MPs that she would serve as long as they still wanted her.

She used that time to negotiate the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration with the EU. This was unveiled in November and it received the type of critical reaction that theatrical types politely call mixed. With the clock ticking down on the Article 50 timetable to 29 March 2019, Theresa May had limited amounts of time at her disposal and she had to decide how to spend it to secure an acceptable result to her.

She concluded that her deal would not pass in December, so she decided to spend a month over Christmas working on MPs’ hearts and minds. She did not get the value she sought for what she sold: Generals December and January were never going to help her when MPs were hearing on all sides how vehemently constituents and party members felt about the subject.  

She did, however, get a windfall bonus that was worth that month and then some: as a result of her decision dissident Conservative MPs obtained and lost a vote of no confidence in her, cementing her in place as party leader for another year.  

You can argue whether it was unwise for the dissidents to shoot their bolt then or whether it was unwise for Conservative MPs then to give her their backing (or both).

Whatever, she got a freedom of manoeuvre in the short term that she did not previously have.  In order to secure this, she made another big sale of her personal time, this time promising publicly that she would not fight the next election.

She did not use her time well. Theresa May stuck rigidly to one path: the one that she had agreed with the EU. There have been murmurings in the papers that the EU is deeply unhappy with the way in which Britain has approached agreeing the withdrawal agreement.  

Hardline Leavers and unreconciled Remainers alike have grounds to object (as has anyone with a passing interest in good or even adequate governance) but the EU has not. The one thing that Theresa May has unflinchingly sought to do is secure the agreement that she had negotiated with them.

It has, however, been obvious for months that objective was unattainable. It should have been jettisoned much sooner. Instead, the Prime Minister sold the rest of January and all of February on manoeuvres to steamroller her deal through. It didn’t work. Anyone who could count, as LBJ would have advised her, would have seen it wouldn’t work.

She was aided by a supine Parliament, that accepted her airy and loosely-framed commitments rather than take control of the process sooner. As always, however, tactics without strategy is the longest way to defeat. She was defeated again in the second meaningful vote. She then threatened Parliament with the cliff edge of 29 March if it did not pass her deal.

This gambit was thwarted by the EU offering her more time, to at least 12 April, that she could not afford to seem not to take. She then sought to sell more of her personal time by promising her own MPs to resign if they passed the withdrawal agreement. This bargain was turned down.

Now, in extra time, Theresa May is down to trading remaining minutes, this time by seeking finally to involve the leader of the Labour party in what should always have been a national decision. If a deal is to be struck with him it will need to be struck by Monday if there are not to be more indicative votes.

The price of this bargain – for just six days – is huge. She has probably definitively lost a cohort of hard Leave backbenchers, many of whom appear to be seriously weighing voting against her in any Parliamentary vote of no confidence. Her party is splintering on both sides and if the Conservative party were to lose even three more MPs, it would no longer have a working majority with the DUP. Far more than three on each side of the party are very close to the end of the road with the party.

So what next? The Prime Minister is bereft of a strategy. This has been clear for some weeks. Perhaps some form of deal will be reached with Labour. Since the leader of the Opposition has no obvious reason to help the Prime Minister out, a failure to agree must be the likeliest outcome. If a deal is reached, it will inevitably involve something that will be called a customs union and very possibly some form of referendum (not to include this would devastate Labour’s own supporter base).  

Either of those would be too bitter a pill for most Conservatives to swallow. Both together look like a lethal cocktail for both the Conservatives and Theresa May. So for this reason too, an agreement looks less likely than a failure to agree.

In that case, there will be more indicative votes on Monday. The residual party discipline of the Conservatives can then be assumed to have definitively evaporated. This will not make finding a way forward that commands a majority of the Commons easier since the bulk of the Parliamentary Conservative party now dresses to No Deal.

Theresa May can be counted upon not to take any step that will shorten her tenure as Prime Minister but she can be counted upon to take any step, including the burning of her own future, to extend her present. To that end, it would suit her better to look overborne by events than actively to have taken any step to bring about either a deal that her party would not stomach or actively to have taken any step to effect no deal.

So I expect there to be no breakthrough deal brokered by the party leaders, for indicative votes next Monday to take place, for the government to give no steer and, probably, for the institutional gridlock in the House of Commons to continue. By this point, the Conservative party may well have lost control of Parliament through further defections.

After that, who knows?  Can anyone even try to see further ahead than that?

Alastair Meeks

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