Prime minister Theresa May won plaudits from the Tory Leave lobby this week for her pro-Brexit speeches at the Conservative Party conference. May announced that she would trigger Article 50, giving formal notice of the UK’s intention to quit the European Union, by the end of March 2017. She pledged that her government would ‘get on with the job’ of making Brexit happen, without being delayed by opponents in the Westminster parliament or the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Declaring that ‘We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country’, the prime minister also announced plans for a Great Repeal Bill to scrap the 1972 European Communities Act – the major legislative bond to the EU, which has enabled European rules to override UK laws for the past 40-odd years. She even took a well-aimed swipe at the anti-Brexit lobby for showing ‘contempt for democracy’ by trying to reverse the June referendum result and ‘sneering’ at Leave voters.
It might seem that, after months of dithering, Theresa May has finally emerged as the hero of the hour, the Brexit Boudicca come to rescue British democracy from Euro-tyranny. What’s not to like? What were we worrying about? Well…
Those of us on the left who supported Leave as a stand for greater democracy, and have been fighting against the anti-democratic backlash since, should certainly welcome the fact that things are finally moving. However, it is rarely advisable to accept at face value speeches designed to placate the party-conference faithful. Before we start joyously dancing around the May pole, there are a few serious questions to be asked.
In politics, it is important to judge people by what they do rather than what they say about themselves. And what May actually did as Tory home secretary was to support the Remain campaign to keep the UK as a loyal member of the European Union.
She may not have thrown herself into the frontline of David Cameron’s so-called Project Fear, by predicting apocalypse from now on if Britain voted to leave. May did, however, warn against any idea that the UK would be able simply to quit the EU without making major concessions to maintain good relations. ‘Those concessions’, she told us during the referendum campaign, ‘could well be about accepting EU regulations, over which we would have no say, making financial contributions, just as we do now, accepting free-movement rules, just as we do now, or quite possibly all three combined’.
Now, little more than three months later, May boasts that under her leadership Brexit will make Britain ‘a fully independent, sovereign country’ once more. Which might beg the question: does she accept that the UK is not sovereign or independent as a member state of the EU? In which case, why did she campaign for Britain to remain a dependent, non-sovereign vassal state just a few weeks ago?
May’s apparent damascene conversion to the cause of Brexit and democracy suggests that, like almost every British politician from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, her attitude to the EU is tactically elastic rather than built on firm principles. None of them can be trusted to deliver, particularly if their feet are not kept to the fire by public pressure.