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May’s speech was laudable, but the question persists: is she really up to this?

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Theresa May is a decent person who clearly takes her duties as a public servant seriously. But despite the speech she gave yesterday in London, I believe the questions that have haunted her premiership so far are as pertinent now as they were before she delivered it. Where is her authority, her power, her strength and her influence? For without these things, this country is not in charge of its destiny.

First, some thoughts on the speech itself. Mrs May spoke of regaining control of Britain’s laws, borders and money, while recognising that the referendum “was not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours”.

She said she wants to protect people’s jobs and security. She said the agreement between the UK and the EU must be enduring and not lead to endless future negotiations. She declared that Britain must remain a “modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant” nation that stands up for its values while meeting international obligations. And she added that the deal “must strengthen our union of nations and our union of people.”

Who can argue with any of these laudable intentions? No level-headed person would ever do so. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic for me to reflect on the fact that in calling for all of this, Mrs May simply echoed what I have been arguing for over the last 20 years. The difference is, I was usually labelled some sort of crank or extremist. I hope for her sake she is not branded in the same way.

What I find myself wondering more and more, though, is whether the prime minister has the sheer force of personality required to make sure these aims are met.

These mixed messages do not provide much comfort. She needs to take on Brussels, and declare that if we aren’t treated in a reasonable fashion, we will walk away.”

This week I appeared on the BBC1 show Question Time. It was recorded in Blackpool, a town that voted by 2 to 1 for Brexit. What struck me most during the debate (apart from the revelation that one of my fellow panellists is a BBC presenter who supports the will of the people on Brexit called Radzi Chinyanganya) were the three or four audience members who made it clear they are crying out for a powerful leader they can believe in. They all want someone who can guide the country safely through Brexit and onto the next phase. And I am certain they are not alone.

I am the first to admit that even with a fair wind behind even the most successful prime minister, securing a successful Brexit while making sure the country was not badly split by it would be a big task.

Theresa May delivers speech on Brexit

The trouble for Mrs May is that that fair wind isn’t blowing for her. There are too many other preoccupations in her political life. Principally, the parliamentary arithmetic with which she must contend must give her many sleepless nights. With her wafer thin majority, and troublemakers like Anna Soubry stirring it up at every opportunity, one has to feel some sympathy – even if Mrs May’s woeful handling of last year’s general election campaign is arguably to blame.

But on top of this she has to try to take on the Brussels bullies, that intractable group who seem hell bent on making the withdrawal process as complicated for Britain as possible. Is she up to it?

Mrs May has failed fully to quell suspicions she is not up to the job.”

What people want at the moment is the reassurance that comes with decisiveness. Mrs May’s track record doesn’t provide this.

Last year she gave a speech at Lancaster House which filled me with hope. She suggested her government was going to implement the will of the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. Months later, when she travelled to Florence to give another speech on Brexit, her tune had changed somewhat. Huge concessions suddenly appeared on the agenda. These mixed messages do not provide much comfort.

Mrs May owes everyone in Britain one thing: clarity. I think she needs to take on Brussels, stand up for Britain, and declare that if we aren’t treated in a reasonable fashion, we will walk away from all negotiations and set our own course. Instead, May said this week: “We will not be buffeted by demands to threaten a walk out”. That to me sounds a lot like “no deal is better than a bad deal” ceases to be our negotiating position. This will be welcomed with glee by the bully boys in Brussels who will continue to treat us with contempt. 

Mrs May has failed fully to quell suspicions she is not up to that job. It was telling that when asked the question “Is Brexit worth it?” after her speech, she couldn’t bring herself to answer. This on top of her being unable to say how she would vote if there was another referendum held today. She still has time to show her mettle, but the clock is ticking. She must act now or risk damaging this great nation of we she spoke so proudly yesterday. And she must do so in a way that will guarantee her name will appear in the history books for all the right reasons

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