I find myself often trying to figure out what Theresa May is doing these days. As in, what is the strategy she is pursuing exactly, not just in terms of Brexit, but everything else too.
One must begin by recognising that most of her premiership is about Brexit and roll from there. Instead of laying out a realistic plan for leaving and then sticking to it, she came out in the Lancaster House speech in January 2017 really hard, with red lines over red lines. No money to be paid to the EU; out of everything conceivable; we’d negotiate the trade deal before discussing anything else. Since then, it’s been nothing but climbdowns. It seems like the ERG types haven’t noticed this – or maybe they’re playing some sort of long game themselves.
My chief worry is this: is Theresa May playing the “long game”? What I mean by that is, does she think she can somehow muddle her way through the Brexit negotiations and have the final settlement be so undeniably brilliant that Tory MPs say to themselves, “You know what? She may have run the worst campaign in the history of British elections, one so bad that Jeremy Corbyn took succour from it, a campaign that exposed her inability to connect with voters in any way whatsoever, but that EU deal! Man, it’s so good, we should let her be prime minister for as long as she wants it!”
There are only several ways that Brexit can go now, none of which will save May’s premiership beyond early 2019. One, parliament somehow prevents it from happening at all. I used to think this was completely impossible; now, I’m not so certain. The Leavers are playing a glorious hand increasingly badly, so I leave it on the table. More likely, we fudge something with the EU which causes minimal disruption for the time being, and probably involves some sort of customs union. The other possibility is a no deal Brexit, which in the immediate term at the very least would be an epic disaster which would immediately end her premiership.
Even if in fifteen years time everyone, even the most passionate Remainer at present, says “Yes, leaving the EU turned out to be the right thing to do”, that will not seem apparent to anyone in 2019. Remainers will be annoyed if we leave regardless, and Leavers will think the terms on which we leave the EU are insufficient, regardless of what is agreed upon. No one is going to think we got a great deal, in other words. Some in the right of centre press may crow about it, but it will feel hollow, at least at first.
I worry that this isn’t apparent to Mrs May and that she really thinks there is some way for her to come out covered in glory, enough to face the next general election as leader. This is highly delusional, and the big worry is that this is what is causing her indecision. Tory MPs are preparing for a number of different scenarios – every single one of them involves chucking her under the bus as soon as is convenient.