May can’t shirk the blame for a Brexit crisis she created | William Keegan | Business

‘People,” a civil servant friend of mine once observed, “are divided into two distinct groups: those who blame others, and those who blame themselves.”

After her preposterous address to the nation last Wednesday evening, it is abundantly clear to which group Theresa May belongs. She blames others, not least those of her fellow elected representatives who are trying to prevent her sacrificing the interests of this country to what the good Lord Adonis calls Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “Economic Ruin Group”. (For readers who may have missed this, Rees-Mogg runs an outfit that purports to be the “European Research Group”, but it does not seem to do much research, or even notice the economic and social damage in front of its very eyes associated with the mere prospect of Brexit.)

The point about this crisis is that it is self-inflicted. The crisis that afflicted the governments of the 1970s was what economists call “an external shock”. The quintupling of the oil price in 1973-74 wrecked the industrial strategy of Edward Heath’s 1970-74 government, and its repercussions severely damaged the reputation of the Wilson-Callaghan governments of 1974-79 – indeed, Labour was out of office until the advent of the Blair government in 1997.

They were dealt a bad hand, those leaders of the 1970s; but as politicians, indeed as statesmen, they stood head and shoulders above what passes for a British cabinet in these benighted days. One of the great figures of those times was Denis Healey, chancellor of the exchequer from 1974-79, who had to cope with a lot of “events”, and is remembered, among other things, for the simple dictum: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

During these past few years, May has dug deeper and deeper. Somebody whose public duty it is to work for a department that has to endure the consequences of her obduracy, and who has “seen some service”, reckons “she combines the worst characteristics of all her prime ministerial predecessors”.

For sheer, blind illogicality, one need look no further than her apparent failure to acknowledge the inconsistency of her position regarding the 2016 referendum – “the people have spoken: we must honour the democratic process” – and the parliamentary votes against her proposed deal: “Our democratically elected members have spoken, but I don’t like what they say. They must vote again.”

All this stuff about the Armageddon-style alternative to backing her deal is plain old-fashioned blackmail. It amounts to almost criminal negligence with the economy that May has been trying to frighten the life out of everyone by talking up no-deal. However, what continues to be hysterically funny for those of us who are reduced to black humour is the way she then threatens, if her bluff is called on no-deal, the possibility of having to remain in the European Union – the status quo ante. Sounds fine to me.

Given the paralysis in Westminster, the case for another look at the result of the 2016 referendum is to my mind overwhelming. It cannot be repeated often enough that the propaganda of the Leave campaign was a tissue of lies. As the Office for Budget Responsibility confirms in its report accompanying the chancellor’s spring statement, the productive potential of the economy has been seriously damaged.

So bad has been the impact of the prospect of Brexit on investment that the fall in the exchange rate – which has caused problems for many – has not even improved the trade balance.

But back to previous crises. Some of those critics of Gordon Brown’s premiership may like to reflect on the professional and efficacious way he handled the financial crisis of 2007-09 – “saving the world” – and contrast it with the stultifying ineptitude of May and her colleagues (I should say “enemies”) in the cabinet when faced with the current crisis.

The irony is that May has been playing havoc trying to keep the parliamentary Conservative party together, while they have been plotting to tear her apart. Some seasoned students of the Tory party fear that if things go on like this, the Tories will be blamed for the catastrophe and be out of office for a generation – whereas if a second referendum still produced a Leave result, the people would have only themselves to blame.

I am going to stick my neck out here and say that, given the mounting evidence of economic damage, and given the arrival of a strongly pro-Remain cohort of younger voters on the register, a second referendum could be won convincingly by Remain. I realise this is not a widely held view, but, as my old colleague Alan Watkins used to say: “There it is!”

Source link