Why is the British elite failing at Brexit?

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Why is the British elite failing at Brexit?

To help remedy political disillusionment the Conservative Party needs a new leader. It should learn from the Labour Party – whose party members elect their leader, and who is consequently more in touch with what the people want than what the elite claim they want, Bruce Newsome argues. 

The British elite has had more than two years to deliver Brexit since the referendum, but achieved nothing but to widen the gap between the elite and the rest of us.

Surely the proposal agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers on 6 July 2018 is the tipping point. Barely 13 percent of voters regard the proposal as “good for Britain.” More Britons want to leave the EU now than at any time since 2015. The opposition Labour Party has its biggest lead in the polls since last year’s general election, despite offering an even less specified plan for Brexit.

Yet more Remainers are in government after Chequers than before!

The elite’s pathologies are decades in the making, as most obvious in the House of Lords – stacked with appointees who were rewarded for lauding the system and who predictably keep voting down Brexit; in the civil service – which delivers hysteria masquerading as non-partisan counsel; in the BBC – which gives (still) more airtime to Remainers than Brexiteers but pretends to be balanced; in academia – whose shifts against empiricism and towards elite agendas are related; and in the current political administration – which contrives to keep everything the same while spinning Brexit.

Theresa May’s government has repeated the same pretence as prior administrations back to the 1960s – pretending that Britain’s relationship with the continent can be one of free trade between sovereign governments, while the European elite insists on centralization, integration, and protectionism. The two approaches are incompatible.

The solution is to “leave the EU.” That is the box that most voters ticked in 2016. Yet the elite has contrived to remain in the EU.

Absurdly, you can find Remainers who blame Brexiteers for Britain’s failure to separate. Last week’s barmiest Brexit-basher is a British professor of politics (who else?), writing in The Guardian newspaper (where else?), blaming May’s failure to deliver Brexit on the Brexiteers who “didn’t really think they’d win the referendum” and wouldn’t get “dragged into discussing precisely how they’d go about it.” But Brexiteers did know what they wanted; the trouble is that the government remains dominated by politicians who don’t want to leave, despite a change of premier.

Theresa May is a Remainer who refused to say whether she would vote remain even after she took over the premiership on a promise to implement Brexit. She appointed a government of mostly Remainers.

Most of the Conservative Members of Parliament who supported Brexit are outside government. Their rigorous specifications of Brexit have been ignored. Take Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs a group of Eurosceptic Parliamentary Conservatives. He speaks frequently with refreshing honesty and specificity about what Brexit should mean, but Remainers insult him as regressive – and caricature all Brexiteers as imperialists and racists.

The Remainer elite doesn’t dazzle us with fine oratory, logic, or evidence – their worship of the EU is generally dishonest or delusional, their motivations are ideological not pragmatic, their arguments are illogical and evidence-free, their characterizations of Brexiteers are straw-men or prejudicial. (Tony Blair, Lord Adonis, and George Soros are their leading lights.)

The few Brexiteers that Theresa May appointed to government have been marginalized or ignored. David Davis was supposed to be her chief negotiator, but during more than two years on the job he spent a few hours directly negotiating, while she sent a secretive personal adviser instead. She also took herself to the continent to sign her own deals with the EU, such as her agreement in December 2017 to pay to the EU at least £39 billion just to open negotiations on other issues.

Where was the Foreign Secretary? She appointed an unmistakable Brexiteer (Boris Johnson), but he was never allowed to negotiate. Theresa May took herself to summits with the EU, just like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took himself to meet Adolph Hitler without his Foreign Secretary.

Now we know that the Department for Exiting the EU came up with a proposal that May did not even offer to the Cabinet: it only came to light because of a leak after David Davis (its chief author) resigned as Brexit Secretary.

Both David Davis and Boris Johnson have resigned over the Chequers policy, followed by three junior ministers and two vice-chairs of the Party. Since then, Theresa May’s government has become less representative. Theresa May promoted three Remainers, one of whom is Jeremy Hunt – a yes-man and a non-achiever in May’s own image (he spent nearly six years as Secretary of State for Health; May spent more than six years as Home Secretary).

May has retained her Chancellor, who has done more than anybody after her to sabotage Brexit, but, like her, pretends to be committed to Brexit. Now, he denies abandoning one of his own red lines: the White Paper says that the financial sector will be subject to alignment with the EU, but he keeps pretending that the financial sector would be governed by mutually recognized rules.

Then there’s Theresa May herself.

Theresa May has confirmed the commonest complaint about politicians – she’s not honest. Theresa May produces more spin than substance. She’s more like Tony Blair than not, despite their opposing parties. Her dishonesty isn’t recent; her dishonesty is not well disguised. Seven months ago I wrote about her dishonest claims about Brexit.

Her promises since the Chequers proposal are attempts to spin as Brexit her proposal to largely remain. She repeated them in The Sun newspaper during the week, followed by the Mail on Sunday, to which she added, “I am yet to see a workable alternative future trading arrangement that would deliver on our commitments to Northern Ireland, preserve the constitutional integrity of the UK[,] and deliver on the result of the referendum.” On the same day, in the Sunday Times, David Davis wrote that “this is an astonishingly dishonest claim.” One of his resigned junior ministers told the Sunday Telegraph that May used his department as a façade while she connived her own White Paper. She made a rare appearance on Sunday television to repeat her lie, followed by news that a fourth junior minister has resigned – he revealed that he knew nothing of her proposal until the fait accompli at Chequers. A fifth junior minister resigned that night.

Theresa May should resign. Surely her unsuitability is beyond doubt. (Six months ago I called for her resignation on these pages.) Now a record proportion (62 percent) of voters want her to resign before the next election.

The block is the Parliamentary Conservative Party. While most party members are Brexiteers, most of their Members of Parliament are Remainers, and only the latter get to vote out or vote in a leader. The Parliamentary Conservative Party hasn’t a good track record of appointing leaders that the voters want (it’s had six leaders in the last 20 years, of which only three were prime ministers, only two ever won a working majority in a general election, none won as strong a majority as either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair).

The Conservative Party needs to learn from the Labour Party – whose party members elect their leader, who is consequently more in touch with what the people want than what the elite claim they want. The Labour Party elected a clumsy, inarticulate old Marxist (Jeremy Corbyn), but he is ahead in the polls, which is evidence more for the uselessness of Theresa May than the usefulness of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Conservative Party needs to do better. It must choose a leader outside of the Remainer elite, then give that leader the time to overturn an incumbent elite that has been decades in the making.

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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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