When Theresa May danced on to the stage in Birmingham, part of me pitied her. It’s not just that she looked deeply uncomfortable as she carried out this demeaning stunt. It’s that she’d clearly convinced herself this was the best way of attracting attention after Boris Johnson’s popular performance the day before. Mrs May’s routine stank of desperation, frankly, and I am still cringing at the memory of it.
As to Mrs May’s speech itself, she read it out perfectly well. After last year’s disaster, simply getting through it was always going to guarantee it would be well received and therefore labelled a success. And so it has proved. The party faithful seemed to love it and London-based commentators were, apparently, equally happy. No doubt someone will label her the new Mrs Thatcher – strong, tough, resilient and so on.
As I have made clear many times, I don’t think that Mrs May has ever have been considered fit to carry Mrs Thatcher’s handbag. She is, by comparison, a political minnow. But I do believe she will now stay put as Tory leader. Her position is almost certainly secure. The last chance to get rid of her was in July, when Boris Johnson made his resignation speech in the House of Commons. And Boris blew it.
As I listened to Mrs May, I kept asking myself whether she was delivering the speech of a Conservative or the speech of a Blairite. On balance, I think she probably gave a speech that was closer politically to a modern, post-Brexit SDP. It was a celebration of political correctness aimed squarely at London metropolitan voters. Other members of society were written out of the script.
Where was the proof that she is connected to Middle England? What words did she speak that show she understands the concept of aspiration? I remember the former prime minister of Australia John Howard telling me that no conservative could ever hope to win an election without the backing of blue-collar workers. Howard won four national polls as leader of the centre-Right Liberal Party, so I have no trouble believing him. Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Major knew the importance of blue-collar workers as well.
Yet, other than a few words tossed in the direction of some local builders, in Mrs May’s speech there was nothing substantial to appeal to them or to the rest of the 5.2 million Britons who are self-employed or sole traders. Even the housing pledges she made were dwarfed by the reality of the UK’s immigration figures. The fact is, a property would have to be built in Britain every five minutes to cope with the flow of arrivals here. As for Mrs May’s commitment to freeze fuel duty, it barely registered because this is the ninth year in a row this announcement has been made.
On Brexit, Mrs May trotted out all the same hackneyed phrases we’ve come to expect from her about control of our laws and borders. The pledge she made on the Common Fisheries Policy did not pass muster either. And she even had the nerve to claim: “You saw in Salzburg that I am standing up for Britain.” My recollection of what happened in Salzburg is that she was utterly humiliated.
As to her commitment to frictionless trade, it caused me to scratch my head. It means that the 88 per cent of our economy that isn’t selling goods to Europe will remain under the control of EU law. Clearly, this is not what the country voted for when it voted for Brexit. I don’t recall frictionless trade ever being a major part of the referendum debate. In her speech, she mentioned it three times.
A word that wasn’t mentioned once was “Chequers”. Seemingly, Mrs May is now terrified of its toxicity and feared that if she did invoke it there would be boos from the audience. Despite saying Britain could yet leave the EU without a deal, her words were hollow. If Mrs May were honest, she would admit this. The course on which she is fixed firmly ties the UK to the EU.
The same people who lauded Mrs May’s speech will look on in horror on October 19 after the next EU summit, already described by the arrogant President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, as the moment of truth for Brexit. They will understand that the aforementioned Chequers proposal will be no way near as bad as what is to come.
I have the same sense of foreboding now as I had in the summer of 1993. As the final Maastricht divisions approached, those who argued this treaty would destroy Britain shuffled shamefacedly through the lobbies to back John Major. The same choice will shortly face Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their fellow Brexiteers in the Commons. With a deeper sense of anger in 2018 than there was 25 years ago, we are now but a few weeks from the greatest betrayal in modern British politics.
The argument that came from Theresa May’s speech, and which has already been bolstered by friendly commentators, is that party unity is paramount. Brexiteers in the House of Commons will have to make a choice. Which is more important to them: party or country?