A Feature, Not a Bug: Why May is using the status of EU Nationals to tempt her enemies into destruction

March 8, 2017
March 8, 2017
UK Politics

The events of the past week are a reminder that however surreal the Trump Presidency may seem in the United States, and how alarmist the coverage, British politics have been transformed far more this year. The one-two punch of the victory of the Brexit side in the June referendum on EU membership, and Jeremy Corbyn's reelection as Labour leader resulted in a situation in which the elites which had dominated British politics for the past three decades found themselves excluded from power in both major parties. The referendum not only brought down David Cameron, but also the entire Notting Hill. That meant the exclusion from power not just of Cameron himself, but of close allies like George Osborne, proteges like Nicky Morgan, and an entire legion of staff, consultants and PR /media professionals. In the Labour party, a generation of would-be political hacks, inspired by the TV hit In the Thick of It and Tony Blair now find their path upwards doubly blocked by abysmal poll numbers and a Labour climate in which they are seen to represent everything wrong with the party. 

It is impossible to understand the behavior of the major players in British politics without understanding these dynamics and how these divisions have crystallized around the European issue. . Whatever their differences, the Cameroon Tories and Blairite Labour hacks are generally drawn from the same social pool. They are overwhelmingly London based, having made their way to the capital immediately after University in order to get their start in politics at Westminster, generally as researchers, but occasionally as media figures or communications consultants. They share a cosmopolitan outlook, seeing diversity as something that brings them a beneficial nightlife and diverse options for restaurants. Immigration was a communications "issue" to the extent it required them to keep constituents or voters outside of London happy, not a serious concern, and with their lives planned out, the last thing they wanted was to upset the status quo. Brexit, or its prospect has found them discovering more in common with each other, than with those who currently run their parties.

As for the "outsiders" turned "insiders", Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have also found a set of common interests, or at least a common enemy, that has provided for de facto cooperation. Both spent the vast majority of their political careers excluded from the inner circles of power within their parties, May by gender, a state education, and and a personality at odds with what the "hip" generation expected of a female politician, to be seen and not heard, except on education or other side issues; Corbyn by his status as an activist in a party dominated for 25 years by middle class careerists. Both understand the unique circumstances of their assumption of power, Corbyn by the backfiring of electoral reforms within the Labour party, May as the beneficiary of the Brexit bloodbath which saw not only the fall of Cameron, but the leading Brexiters devour themselves. Neither a committed Brexiter or Remainer by inclination, both have found in Brexit a convenient weapon to wield against any prospective "restoration" of the old regime. Corbyn, by pursuing a policy of accommodation with Brexit, stresses the London and Middle Class identities of his internal foes, while ensuring that as much as traditional Labour voters in the North might distrust him, they can never rally behind his foes who identify themselves entirely with maintaining EU freedom of movement. Theresa May has gone farther. A Remainer during the referendum, she has grasped the simple truth. For the Conservative membership and much of the electorate, the elimination of freedom of movement is the single non-negotiable baseline of any successful departure from the EU, trumping the concerns of the business community over economic costs, and by identifying the government's Brexit policy full-stop with ending freedom of movement, she has cast any internal foes as wealthy elitists more concerned with their income and cheap labour than with the quality of life or job prospects of most Britons.

That Brexit is, for Theresa May, far more about consolidating her position within the Conservative party, and that of the Conservative party within Britain, than it is about any sort of idealistic vision of a global role for the UK is key to understanding why May has been so intransigent on her approach. For her, positions on Brexit are not about the relative merits of the policy positions but about party loyalty. Knowing that the same sort of Conservatives who opposed Brexit, and now seek a "Soft", EEA option preserving Common Market access and freedom of movement, are the ones who would be first in line to join a coup against her for other reasons, not least the general principle of her being being a social "outsider", she would much prefer their rebellion be on an issue where the Conservative party is overwhelmingly against them. Hence the fight over whether to submit Article 50 to parliamentary approval, which served the purpose of identifying the opposition with the courts(and portraying them as sore losers) rather than electoral politics, and more recently the government's determination not to guarantee the status of EU nationals currently resident within the UK after Brexit. It has been pointed out by critics that the latter was promised by many leading Brexiters during the campaign, but it is precisely because of the gap in perceptions between the elite and the electorate that May has chosen to fight on it. To the elite, the idea of holding EU citizens hostage is abhorrent. To the average voter, who cast their ballot due to the fact that there were far too many non-English speaking EU migrants in the country, the idea of surrendering on the issue without a reciprocal guarantee appears as surrender bordering on disloyalty, not to mention, reeks of the same indifference to quality of life concerns outside elite circles which led to the Brexit vote in the first place. That it places potential Tory rebels in league with Liberal Democrats and Labour cosmopolitans reinforces the perception that they are disloyal to the party.

Furthermore, the issue acts as a test of loyalty. May, by personally assuring Tory Mps in writing that she will seek to settle the issue in a way which allows EU migrants to remain, has done far more than impose a three-line whip. She has forced potential rebels to declare that her written word is not enough, to call their party leader and Prime Minister a liar in public. And if they have so little faith in the integrity of their leader, how can she have any faith in them? Such a statement justifiably precludes any future in a position of responsibility, much less a cabinet role. And if Brexit were to fail, or go through without a limit on immigration, any rebel would bear the blame, rightly or not, foreclosing any ambitions of the party leadership, the ascension to which would require victory in a membership ballot. Win or lose in Parliament, May wins politically within the party. And if need be, she can appeal to the country. Former leader William Hague has floated repealing the fixed term parliament act and going to the country early, and with recent polls showing a 45-26 lead, a Tory landslide seems all but inevitable. It is unclear if May would even have to go that far. An early election can be triggered by a two-thirds vote in the Commons, and Corbyn has pledged he will not block an early election. It would be next to impossible for the Commons to reject the government policy on Brexit, which after all passed in a referendum, and then subsequently reject a government request to test the matter with the electorate. If the amendment came from the unelected Lords, it would be borderline suicidal.

The Prime Minister's opponents, who ironically are also foes of the Corbyn leadership, have so far played into Theresa May's hands. Denied influence in either major party, but maintaining dominance in external institutions, they have chosen to fight through non-electoral means. So far this strategy has functioned  to obstruct the government's implementation of Brexit, though it is unclear if that is viewed as an entirely negative thing by the Prime Minister. Its political yield, by contrast, has been much more meager. In fact, from a branding perspective it has been positively catastrophic, casting as the representatives of the "Remain" cause some of the least attractive characters in British public life. By utilizing institutions identified with the elites, including the the British Supreme Court, only one of whose eleven members were educated at a state school, and the House of Lords, which is not only unelected, but whose membership inflates both the Liberal Democrats, who have over 100 Peers compared to only 9 MPs in the Commons, but also Europhile Tories who are all but extinct within the electorate. The height of the absurdity of the latter situation was demonstrated when Michael Heseltine, the Tory politician who began his career as a liberal and is most famous for ousting Margaret Thatcher in 1990, revolted with the declaration that the "fightback [against Brexit] starts here." It is hard to imagine a worst spokesman for the cause. Detested for his betrayal of Thatcher, Heseltine's decision to associate Tory dissent with himself did more to ensure that Tory dissent or doubts were inexorably associated with disloyalty to party(and among some, country) than anything Theresa May or the tabloid press could dream of doing. As if to compound the service to the cause he detests as ruinous, Heseltine proceeded to conduct a round of interviews in which he suggested Brexit was a "man-sized job", something sure to reinforce suspicions that Lord Heseltine has issues with female leaders.

The Commons will have to revisit the issue of the amendments when the bill returns from the Lords, and the lower house can override the Lords with a majority vote. Lord Heseltine insists there are 30 Tory MPs pledged to rebel, but this seems optimistic. May will make clear that the matter is an issue of party loyalty, of faith in her word, and it will be cast as a question of national loyalty. An unamended Article 50 bill will be portrayed as the only way go ensuring the UK has control of who can live in the country, and it is unlikely that more than a handful of Tory Mps, even in seats that voted remain overall, will find local party associations sympathetic to a revolt on the issue. Especially when it is portrayed as an effort at sabotage by remainers rather than a serious policy critique.

It is also for this reason that retreat on the matter is inconceivable. The Prime Minister gains more from a defeat of Article 50 in total than from a compromise on its components regarding immigration. Furthermore, commentators do not realize how much the Tory party/s attitude towards the Lords have changed. While abolishing or reforming it would have been inconceivable for David Cameron, for Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn it is a different matter. For them, it will always be an oppositional institution to their brand of Toryism/Labourism, as it will always be elite-dominated and therefore hostile to any populist government. As such, its abolition, rather than being unthinkable, is merely a matter of the creation of the correct circumstances. If the Lords succeed in blocking Brexit, or are seen as defeating immigration controls, then the Conservative grassroots, and the voters, can be sold the idea that only the abolition or reform of the Lords can enable genuine control over immigration or other issues like the Human Rights act.

Theresa May may look unassailable. But it is precisely her feelings of vulnerability that are determining government policy right now.


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