Argument

Theresa May’s Incredible Shrinking Brexit

Theresa May’s Incredible Shrinking Brexit

Back in June, Britain’s decision to exit the European Union was the biggest thing in global politics. Flags were waved, slogans were chanted, joy and despair were unconfined.

And now? There has been no Brexit recession. But there has been no Brexit decision, either. May has assured us that “Brexit means Brexit” — in other words, even though she voted to Remain, she will deliver on the voters’ decision to leave the EU. But what, precisely, does Brexit mean?

On that score, it’s all gone quiet — and it will apparently stay that way for quite some time. In the interim, the British press can happily occupy itself with arguments about grammar schools and giving the departing prime minister a kick up the backside on his way out.

There are three reasons why May has succeed in lowering the Brexit temperature from rolling boil to gentle simmer. The first is that the topic is, by its very nature, hugely important but hugely boring. The headline slogan is “Take back control!” — but the mechanism of doing that involves unpicking thousands of regulations and scrutinizing dozens of potential legal frameworks.

Even the big headline questions — such as whether Britain wants to remain a member of the single market (and enjoy tariff-free trade at the price of accepting unrestricted immigration) — break down into the question of what differentiates access to the market from membership of it into issues of financial passporting and WTO baselines and Canadian or Norwegian models.

The second reason is that these technocratic issues are meat and drink to May. Her Tory supporters may be painting her as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher. But there are aspects of her personality that are much closer to (whisper it) Gordon Brown. Like him, she successfully ran a major department (the Home Office rather than the Treasury) with a strategy of top-down command and control, mastering every detail while keeping both decisions and information as tightly controlled as possible. For May, inscrutability isn’t a bug — it’s a feature.

The third reason, which is closely allied to this, is the extent to which May has stamped her authority on government — and on Brexit.

Her masterstroke was to hand control of the departments overseeing the process to three rival Brexiteers — Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and David Davis. Each has a healthy regard for his own ability and is not noted for a history of friendship or communality of political vision with the other two. Each also represents a separate institutional power base that will inevitably push against the others. (Not least because Fox’s and Davis’s departments, covering international trade and the Brexit negotiations, respectively, will need to filch staff from Johnson’s Foreign Office.)

There is something else about this triumvirate: They are no threat to her. Johnson, the foreign secretary, is the biggest beast — May’s likely rival for the leadership until being knifed by his former Vote Leave comrade Michael Gove. But Fox and Davis were — to Westminster observers if not to themselves — on the downslope of their careers. The former, the international trade secretary, had left office in disgrace. The latter, having come in runner-up to David Cameron in the previous leadership contest, stormed out of the shadow cabinet to mount a quixotic campaign over civil liberties.

It was a sign of their diminished standing, perhaps, that neither of the two was involved at a senior level in Vote Leave. And this, too, is crucial, because it has given May enormous room to maneuver.

During the referendum campaign, the Brexiteers made certain promises about what Britain would look like after Brexit: Britain’s EU spending (the largely mythical $462 million a year) to go to the National Health Service, a points-based immigration system, scrapping value-added tax on fuel. One by one, May has brushed these aside. She was not part of Vote Leave and does not feel bound by its specific pledges.

So what will Brexit look like? It is impossible to tell what is happening behind the scenes, but so far any attempt by one of her three juniors to venture an opinion — whether it be Johnson’s sending her his thoughts on what the “red lines” in negotiation should be or Davis’s suggesting that Britain will probably leave the single market — appears to have been met with either a frosty silence or an outright rebuke by the prime minister.

What Brexit means, in other words, is what May wants it to mean. And she isn’t telling anyone.

In terms of taking the heat out of the issue, this has been a masterstroke. The dilemma facing her, however, is that at a certain point, masterly inactivity simply becomes inactivity.

Earlier this week, I went to hear Ed Balls — formerly the shadow chancellor for the Labour Party, currently delighting the nation as a contestant on Britain’s version of Dancing With the Stars — talk about the lessons he’s learned in politics. He said that, to him, May’s silence on the issue felt like a mistake.

“Theresa May has been successful as a politician by not defining herself and keeping her head down,” he said, which was a recipe for success “in any job except prime minister.” In particular, he said that the way she was “standing back slightly above it and watching [Johnson, Fox, and Davis] fight it out” felt like a mistake.

In some respects, it’s already clear what May wants from Brexit. As home secretary, she was constantly determined to cut immigration and constantly unhappy at the fact that European rules (and her colleagues’ desire to protect Britain’s lucrative trade in educating foreign students) prevented her from doing so. She believes she now has a clear instruction from voters to control immigration, even if it means that Britain takes an economic hit from leaving the single market.

But as for the rest of it? There are 1,000 decisions to make, each of them deeply contentious, many of which will need endorsement from a Parliament in which May has a slim majority in the House of Commons and a nonexistent one in the House of Lords, with interest groups and lobbyists and campaigners kicking up an almighty fuss all the while. The legalistic details involved mean that the process might, on many fronts, go rapidly from technical to nightmarish — as helpfully pointed out in a recent briefing paper by former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

May would obviously prefer to formulate her plans in private: Davis has said that neither the public nor Parliament will be given a running update. But as Cameron found out when he was trying to win concessions from EU countries before the Brexit vote, getting your negotiations done in secret is next to impossible — as is coming up with deals that are acceptable to both your audience at home and your partners abroad. Meanwhile, there is an economy to keep on an even keel, a party to keep under control, and all the other duties of a prime minister to carry out.

As of this week, May is mistress of all she surveys: streets ahead in the polls, unrivaled commander of the Cabinet, the previous Tory regime driven from power and, in the case of its leader, from Parliament. The problem for her is that whatever decisions she makes on Brexit, she will upset a large and vocal constituency. Perhaps that’s why she seems so happy to postpone them.

Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images