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Why Theresa May should not get anyone’s sympathy vote

Summary:
She may have fortitude in the face of misfortune, and it is easy to feel sympathy for her in comparison to the Brexiters in the Conservative party. But to a large extent she has brought that all upon herself, from the moment she became Prime Minister. Here are some of her bigger mistakes. Appointing Brexiters to key posts in cabinet, including the minister who would be in day to day charge of the negotiations, and Boris Johnson. A clever wheeze, some political commentators opined, to make the Brexiters own the result. In reality not so clever when the aim of the Brexiters is not to get a deal. In the end she had to take over negotiations herself to get anywhere at all, and of course she owned the result. Rather than listening to experts on the EU, law and economics when formulating

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She may have fortitude in the face of misfortune, and it is easy to feel sympathy for her in comparison to the Brexiters in the Conservative party. But to a large extent she has brought that all upon herself, from the moment she became Prime Minister. Here are some of her bigger mistakes.

  1. Appointing Brexiters to key posts in cabinet, including the minister who would be in day to day charge of the negotiations, and Boris Johnson. A clever wheeze, some political commentators opined, to make the Brexiters own the result. In reality not so clever when the aim of the Brexiters is not to get a deal. In the end she had to take over negotiations herself to get anywhere at all, and of course she owned the result.

  2. Rather than listening to experts on the EU, law and economics when formulating her plan, she listened to her political advisors whose only interests were in keeping the party together. As a result she wrote red lines that she has had to cross over to get a deal, and wasted a lot of time in between.

  3. If she had listened to anyone with even the slightest knowledge she would not have rushed to start the Article 50 process.

  4. Holding a General Election in 2017, in the middle of the negotiation process, and then holding on to power when that gambit failed by bribing the DUP with, as the Tories like saying, taxpayers money.

  5. Ignoring the Irish border for over a year. Then agreeing a deal on the Irish border in December 2017. Then declaring in the House of Commons that no Prime Minister could ever approve such a deal when the EU put that agreement in legal form.

Two things seem to have motivated her throughout this process: to appease the Brexiters, and to end Freedom of Movement. Both have influenced the Withdrawal Agreement, although not in ways she suggests. In the two years she could have been outlining a deal that brings the UK much closer to the EU, but she has quite deliberately done the opposite.

There is a story going round that she had no choice in all this. She had to appease the Brexiters at every terms because her survival depended on it. This is simply not the case. She has brought her present position on herself through her constant appeasement of the Brexiters. She could and should have marginalised the Brexiters at the very start of her premiership, when she was at her most powerful, and been honestwith people about what the trade-offs were. The Brexiters would have huffed and puffed, but they never had enough support to bring her down, particular in the early months of her premiership. If she had done that, and listened to sound advice, the last two or more years would have been a much calmer and more rational period.

But she was not going to do that because of her obsession with ending freedom of movement and reducing immigration. May is the author of the hostile environment, that has inflicted suffering on so many people, just so she can try and meet some arbitrary target. Yet when Amber Rudd, her replacement as Home Secretary, had to deal with the flack that the hostile environment caused when the media discovered it was being applied to the Windrush generation and their descendants, May allowed Rudd to resign without a hint of apology from herself as author of the policy. Her recent description of migrants who came to the UK when we were in the EU as 'queue jumpers' is unfortunately all to typical of this Prime Minister. 

It is a mistake to see stubbornness as fortitude, particularly when the person’s misfortunes are entirely self-inflicted. It would be a serious mistake to be sympathetic when she is finally standing up to the mad Brexiters when she should have done this 2 years ago. Her failure has given us a deal which makes voters worse off and givesthem less sovereignty. She has put this country in a position that we have only months before we leave with no deal, saying you take my deal or you have chaos. She has done all this with only one thing in her mind: it is a strategy that maximises her chances of staying leader for longer (see this poston perpetual Brexit). When you keep making serious mistakes, having someone who is stubborn and self-centred as Prime Minister is extremely dangerous.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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