Out of office...

Jun 01, 2018
With Prime Minister Theresa May in office but not necessarily in power, a harsh reality may await her in October.

From the outside looking in, governing politicians look very powerful. They get to make big policy decisions; they make big personnel choices; and they’re driven around in big cars to speak to fawning audiences. The picture can look very different, though, if you’re on the inside looking out. In a parliamentary democracy, a government minister can’t go much further than his or her parliamentary colleagues will allow. They must operate within budgetary constraints and parliamentary timetables usually set by others. With regular cabinet reshuffles, they may not spend that long in a ministry anyway. And they can’t impose too much short-term pain (even if it might win substantial longer-term benefits) in case an early election might catch them disadvantaged and allow their opponents to scoop the policy dividends of their sacrifice.

We have repeatedly seen this phenomenon with successive Irish ministers for health. They come into office promising reform; they get hit by unfolding scandals whose seeds were set in earlier administrations; their political standing gets worn down by successive scandals and repeated fire-fighting; and eventually they’re mercifully evacuated from the health portfolio to another government department. Afterwards, members of the public struggle to remember a single enduring policy legacy they left behind. The politician has been in office, but not in power.

It looks to me as if this broad description may apply to British Prime Minister, Theresa May. She opposed the Brexit option when it was put to British voters nearly two years ago but as Prime Minister, she has had to embrace Brexit, stridently declaring that “Brexit means Brexit”… whatever that means. It is clear what British voters voted against – no more membership of the EU. It is not at all clear what they voted for – to remain in the Single Market? To remain in the Customs Union? To exit both and conclude an overarching trade deal with the EU? Or to exit both without such a deal and to therefore, fall back on World Trade Organisation rules?

In short, even before what were going to be very difficult negotiations with the EU, the UK government needed an internal British debate that would identify a preferred Brexit outcome that could be sustained politically. While different bodies (political parties, lobby groups, the House of Lords) may have articulated their desired outcome, there has been no knocking of heads to arrive at an agreed national position. Instead, the knocking of heads has taken place within the farcically named “Brexit war cabinet”. Is Britain at war with the EU? Is the UK never to escape from its nostalgia for World War II (an event, by the way, which left it economically bankrupt and in precipitate flight from past colonial treasures)?

Theresa May will shortly have to face the political consequences of failing to properly decide what form of Brexit the UK should aim for prior to negotiations with the EU. Over the last 12 months, she has remained in power despite lacking a parliamentary majority and her government has managed to avoid a breakdown of Brexit negotiations with the EU. But for how much longer can Mrs May sustain this stance?

Until now, Theresa May has been able to hide behind notions such as “Brexit means Brexit” and the vague agreement reached late last year, which permitted the second stage of Brexit negotiations to commence. But the time for ambiguity is rapidly slipping away. Michel Barnier has stated that this summer’s meeting of European leaders in Brussels would be a “stepping stone” for the final summit in October, which is the deadline for reaching an agreement on withdrawal. Hard choices now have to be made. They may provoke the withdrawal of MPs’ support and could possibly trigger a fresh UK general election. Having been in office but not in power, Theresa May might soon find herself out of office. 
Cormac Lucey is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.