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The sum of all fears

October 3rd, 2018

Nobody kicks a dead dog, Dale Carnegie noted.  Based on that observation, we can conclude two things from the Conservative party conference.  First, the government is very fearful that a fresh referendum is a runner.  And secondly, Boris Johnson remains a serious and potent threat.  Speaker after speaker at the Conservative party conference lined up to launch an attack on one or other of these.

The Prime Minister is at the head of the queue.  She has gone out of her way to trash both.  This is on the surface strange.  From the outside, she seems to be leaping at shadows.  Boris Johnson has the ambition but he doesn’t seem to have the reach (or he’d already be forcing the matter to a conclusion).  There’s plenty of noise for a people’s vote but no noticeable momentum at present.  So what is she worrying about?

The simple conclusion is that she is planning ahead.  That suggests that she thinks things can only get worse.  The Conservative party will only be tempted to turn to a charlatan who was utterly out of his depth in the highest office that he held if things otherwise look hopeless.  A people’s vote will only look attractive if the talks with the EU appear to break down irretrievably or if the deal reached gets voted down.  Theresa May must regard those things as distinctly possible.

There is other indirect evidence for this fear.  The Prime Minister did not mention the word “Chequers” once in her speech (much to the annoyance of those political bettors who can’t resist betting on buzzword bingos).  Unlike Calvin Coolidge, Theresa May is not the type of politician to do something just to thwart a gambler.  So this was deliberate.  She evidently realises that the Chequers approach is now that unpopular.  There had been rumours that the moment it was named, a slow handclap was going to start.  She wasn’t going to take that risk.  This is the deal that dare not say its name.

So Theresa May is working towards a deal that the public have given the thumbs down and that her party will not back her on.  On the other hand, the terms of that proposed deal are nowhere near what the EU professes to be looking for.  The chance of some major breakages looks very substantial indeed, even if the deal all ends being patched up in the end.

Theresa May’s speech has been received favourably.  Most commentators have confused confident delivery for strategic success.  She sought to build a common purpose and did so by offering nothing to those (currently the majority in every poll for months) who doubt the wisdom of Brexit and nothing to those (currently a majority of Leavers in every poll that has canvassed opinion on the subject) who scorn compromise with the EU.  When the hangovers wear off, the Prime Minister will look just as beleaguered as she did before the conference.  At no point has she sought to lead opinion rather than corral it to her advantage.  The failures of that approach are becoming more apparent with every passing day.

There is a separate indication that there very much is not a done deal yet, this from the other side of the table.  Michel Barnier had been much touted as a possible successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as the EPP’s nominee for president of the European Commission.  He has, however, made it clear that he is not going to be throwing his hat into the ring to be their spitzenkandidat because he still has work to do on Brexit.  At the very least, he is not sure that he will have a success story to point to in his main work for the last two years.

So the two people who are best-placed to judge these matters think that the barometer might well lurch towards stormy.  If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.

Alastair Meeks