25 June 2019 | OPINION
They say you can never make the same mistake twice because the second time it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice. In this regard, Theresa May’s negotiations for a Brexit deal with the European Union were always likely to fail.
Following in the footsteps of Harold Wilson forty years previously, as part of his pledge to hold an in/out referendum, David Cameron promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Nonetheless, what worked in 1975 did not work in 2016. Cameron claimed in 2014 that “the EU is not working and we will change it”. He claimed the EU was open to reform and he could gain significant changes to freedom of movement, something that has heavily contributed to British Euroscepticism. The fact is, as members of the EU, we cannot have full control over our borders. However, the changes he did come away from Brussels with were completely different. They included minor changes, such as an emergency brake on immigration and an opt out from ever-closer union.
Now, in this situation, Cameron had two choices. He could walk away and campaign to leave the EU or he could try and pull the wool over voters’ eyes and campaign to remain. He chose the latter, but rather than take a less prolific stance in the referendum campaign as Wilson had done in 1975, he decided to put himself front and centre, doing his best to make the sack of proverbial coal given to him by Brussels look like diamonds. His gamble backfired spectacularly and this was a classic case of a politician overpromising and underdelivering.
Which brings us to Theresa May. Having just seen her predecessor’s gamble of trying to sell a lemon to the British people and losing, she should have realised that a tougher line with the EU was required and preparations should have been made to make walking away without an agreement a viable option. Ironically, the more you prepare to walk away the less likely it is to happen. In reality Brussels saw straight through her unwillingness to contemplate it and knew that whatever they proposed, the Prime Minister would eventually accept.
Many of the candidates in the initial Tory leadership contest appeared not to have heeded these warnings. According to the great Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yet Rory Stewart believed, as though he were in some sort of parallel universe, that Theresa May’s deal as it stands can still pass through Parliament. Jeremy Hunt, perhaps equally as delusional, believes he can persuade Europe to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, despite his unwillingness to commit to Brexit by 31st October.
Of course, Parliament could still block any future Tory leader from enacting a WTO Brexit, with the most likely procedure being a vote of no confidence in the government. It appears there are the required number of hard-line Tory Remainers for such a vote to succeed and there have even been reports of Theresa May being one such Remainer (all but proving Brexiteer assertions that her heart was never in it). But these potential defectors need only ask themselves which they value more: upholding democracy or potentially unleashing a left-wing Socialist government on Britain with Brexit still undelivered?
What this leadership contest has highlighted so starkly is how many Cabinet Members, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Rory Stewart to name a few, have fundamentally disagreed with the key part of the manifesto they stood on in 2017. When push comes to shove, for them, ‘no Brexit is better than no deal’. If nothing else, this in a nutshell demonstrates why Theresa May’s government was doomed to failure.
Piers Morgan, when he appeared on a question time panel in 2016, summed up David Cameron’s failed renegotiation of our relationship with Europe before the referendum thus: Cameron is the kind of guy who goes into the first shop and says ”I love all your carpets. And, by the way, I’m not leaving until you’ve screwed me over”. The Conservative Party has now had two consecutive Prime Ministers who have been insincere and economical with the truth when it comes to their negotiations with Brussels (‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, anyone?). Whoever they elect as leader must make sure they do not make the same mistake a third time, or the party will face electoral annihilation. Nonetheless, they are one major Boris gaffe away from Theresa May Mark II becoming PM, so I wouldn’t bet my life on it.