May is a modern day Neville Chamberlain

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May is a modern day Neville Chamberlain

Theresa May is as irredeemable as Neville Chamberlain after Munich: She should go quicker than he did, says Bruce Newsome.

Theresa May had another bad week. Again, she looked weak, indecisive, duplicitous, and out of touch with popular opinion on issues from the judicial to the diplomatic.

Her government failed to order a judicial review into the release of a serial rapist, even though the inadequate sentencing of the rapist was clearly the fault of the Labour government that chose not to prosecute most of the criminal complaints against him. Moreover, the then Director of Public Prosecutions is now the Labour Party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Sir Keir Starmer) – she could have easily made a spectacle of him if the judicial review were to go against the government’s challenge, but instead her government did not even try. Her claims to be tougher on crime, to get better at managing public expectations, to get better at explaining policy decisions, and to be surer-footed than the scruffy shadow cabinet has eroded further.

Meanwhile, she looked awkward and cold during the French President’s first official trip to Britain, while Emmanuel Macron looked smooth and sure-footed, and everybody agreed that he had won his first Franco-British summit.

She committed to transfer more money to France for French development of the French side of the border, and to accept more migrants, in return for which she received nothing more than French loan of the Bayeux tapestry.

She committed to the difficult French mission in Mali, in return for which France committed to the peaceful British mission in Estonia. Moreover, she committed Chinook helicopters, of which the British military has never had enough for its own purposes, while France committed a few inessential troops. Mali is a combat zone, Estonia is not – May must be barking mad to add the chance of British combat losses on to the other risks that could bring down her shaky government.

She could have claimed that she had earned political capital to trade for French support for Britain in its negotiations with the EU, but Macron ended his trip with a formal interview in which he supported the EU’s policy that post-Brexit Britain should not get a trade deal unless it agrees to all the principles equivalent to full membership.

The EU’s chief negotiator (Michel Barnier) continued to accrue political capital that week when dissident Conservative and Labour parliamentarians visited to collude.

In two interviews that week, Theresa May refused to say whether she would vote for Brexit in a second referendum. She managed to look evasive without persuading anybody that she would vote to Remain. Again she failed to offer any argument as to why a Remainer was the best person to deliver a Brexit – her promise to deliver the will of the majority is not an argument.

Like Neville Chamberlain, Theresa May proves at every challenge that she cannot choose, learn, or adapt quickly enough, either to avoid exploitation by foreign leaders or to take advantage of the opposition Labour Party’s hypocrisies.

In the same week, disaffected Conservative parliamentarians restarted their talk of the need for leadership change. Nick Boles tweeted of “a timidity and lack of ambition about Mrs May’s government which means it constantly disappoints. Time to raise your game, Prime Minister.” Yet Theresa May has had more than enough time to prove that she cannot raise her game. Nevertheless, internal party challenges between elections tend to lose steam in the face of claims that the risks of change are greater than the risks of continuity. Thus, her premiership will probably survive into mid-2019, giving her a premiership of at least three years – the length of Chamberlain’s. She previously indicated that she wants to stay for the full term – until May 2022, giving her a premiership of almost six years.

If May stays for three years, she would get to July 2019, just after Britain’s nominal separation from the EU’s decision-making without effective separation from the EU’s authorities – with the ridiculous hope that she can negotiate a better relationship from a worse relationship. This is the unadmitted side of what she calls the “transition.” Like Chamberlain, May would have stayed long enough to steer Britain further into an international defeat that subsequent administrations will be trying to fix for decades.

By then, she would have ruined whatever is left of her political ethos. Then somebody else will need to take over, but probably not a Churchill (who happened to be lionized in a film released in the same week) – so probably not someone who could build a new political coalition without calling a general election. All of this would fall during the schedule for the greatest renegotiation of Britain’s sovereignty since the Second World War.

Neville Chamberlain proved his disastrous trajectory in his sixteenth month of premiership (September 1938, in Munich) when he conceded Czechoslovakian territory to Germany in return for a vague pledge of friendship that fitted on a single piece of paper. Claims that he cleverly delayed war are myths – he thought he was securing peace and was surprised when the pledge was broken. Claims that the opposition Labour Party opposed appeasement are further myths – the Labour Party backed negotiated settlements and international institutionalization, and opposed rearmament, until further German provocations in spring 1939.

Theresa May is in her eighteenth month of her premiership. She’s already had her Munich: in December 2017 she agreed to pay the EU billions of pounds and to uphold the EU’s jurisdiction in return for a disingenuous piece of paper promising talks on trade. Like the Labour Party in 1938, the Labour Party of today plays a duplicitous game, criticising the prime minister for ambiguity and indecision (in order to hedge its bets in case the electorate cascades either way), but not opposing the overall direction.

Neville Chamberlain’s premiership went on for another 20 months after Munich, but everybody would have been better off if he had gone within his first 20 months. For Theresa May, her 20 months come up in March 2018. She should go now.

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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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