It’s well established that as recently as last April, Theresa May was strongly against leaving the EU. The BBC reports, for example, that in a speech to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers on 25 April 2016, she said:
If we do vote to leave the European Union, we risk bringing the development of the single market to a halt, we risk a loss of investors and businesses to remaining EU member states driven by discriminatory EU policies, and we risk going backwards when it comes to international trade … It is not clear why other EU member states would give Britain a better deal than they themselves enjoy … We export more to Ireland than we do to China, almost twice as much to Belgium as we do to India, and nearly three times as much to Sweden as we do to Brazil. It is not realistic to think we could just replace European trade with these new markets.
(There is much more: you can read the speech for yourself and reassure yourself that none of this is taken out of context.)
We all understand that she reversed her position less than two months later, when the referendum result was in, and she realised she had a better shot at becoming PM by abandoning her previous reasoning. She reasoned that pretending to agree with arguments she had previously opposed was the way to ascend to the throne — and it worked.
So far, so opportunist. But what I don’t understand is this: why, having assumed control, is she now pushing for the hardest possible Brexit, and actively wanting to leave the Single Market? It can’t be an attempt to align with the will of the electorate, because 90% of Brits favour staying in the Single Market — even 90% of those who voted to leave.
As a result, she is left advocating a position so extreme, and so economically foolish that even as sober a journal as The Economist commented “Forget “having our cake and eating it”, now Britain will eat its cake and live with an empty plate afterwards.”
I can only think of two reasons, and they both horrify me.
One is that she herself — far from providing leadership — has been swept up by the irrational jingoism of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. That our leader is in fact a follower of whoever shouts the loudest and gets to be on TV most often.
And that is the good option.
The other is worse: it’s that she is scared that what happened to Jo Cox might happen to her if she “betrays” the most extreme elements of the pro-Brexit camp. If that’s right — if the Prime Minister of the UK literally fears for her life if she doesn’t do exactly what the most deranged and xenophobic people in our society want — then the terrorists really have won, haven’t they?
Just as the 9/11 bombings went on to have a far greater indirect effect that their direct effect — resulting for example in the growth of universal surveillance of citizens in both the UK and the US — so our own politically motivated terrorist outrage may end up having a far, far greater effect than the premature death of one MP.
Apart from anything else, it will teach other extremists that terrorism works.