Friday, 30 June 2017

Greatness awaits - if you can just learn consensus building, Theresa - my Catholic Universe column

Being a newspaper columnist is a funny type of gig. We usually sit not in a busy newsroom but in the solitary confinement of our study or, when the weather is as glorious as it has been recently, in our garden, just in range of Wi-Fi access.

We pick up a news story; research it in depth; turn it upside down and inside out; weigh it against comparable past events and historic data; and then try and come up with some sort of reasoned commentary and usually some sort of projection of what will happen next.

In some respects we are little more than those horoscope writers you read in the tabloid dailies; or betting pundits reading the form.

It sometimes befuddles me that we get things right as often as we do, but in actual fact we are pretty good. Columnists by their very nature tend to be on the small c conservative track. We know that past behaviour is by far the best predictor of future happenings and in actual fact, more often than not, it is.

Of course none of that means that we are infallible. The problem often comes when a brand new parameter comes into the mix.

I was far from the only commentator to resolutely say that there was no chance that Donald Trump would ever win the Presidency of the United States. What I, and countless others, failed to include was the simple fact that there had never been a serious anti-establishment candidate like Mr Trump before. No one could have predicted his populist rhetoric and patent exaggerations would have convinced enough blue collar Americans to vote for him.

Intellectually I was wrong about the last general election and BREXIT, although on both occasions my gut feeling and fortunately for me betting slips predicted the real outcome.

And just a few weeks ago, splattered across the home page of the Huffington Post, I got it wrong again when I predicted that Mrs May shouldn’t be too disappointed if she only comes out of the General Election with a majority of sixty or so.

Now, on the face of it you could argue that my recent record isn’t that strong but I have to put up a defence. The 2015 General Election, EU referendum, rise of President Trump and demise of Mrs May; every single one of them went against the conventional wisdom. Not one of them should have happened but every one of them did.

They are the most convoluted set of random decisions by electorates in living memory. And it is happening all over the world. Seriously, who would have predicted two years ago that Emmanuel Macron, a comparative unknown, would march to the French Presidency?

Who would have thought that just one year after decisively, and unexpectedly, voting to leave the EU the British electorate would effectively hamstring the process of doing it? We live in very strange times.

So, with all of that in mind, today I am going to play the columnists trump card. I am going to argue a point to you so fantastical that you will think I have lost all senses but given the craziness of politics over the past few years may, just about, be feasible.

Let’s face it: if the conventional wisdom is hardly ever right who can blame me, every now and again, for throwing a curveball?

So, here it goes: Theresa May has the opportunity to go down as one of the great British Prime Ministers.

How weird does that sound? Here is a woman who was sat on a healthy parliamentary majority and a massive polling lead against an, on the face of it, appalling opposition and a combination of atrocious, stilted campaigning and political nous from the other guys lead to a hung parliament. In the space of less than a year a competent, professional premier had transformed herself, entirely at her own behest, into one of the biggest lame duck Prime Ministers in the history of Westminster.

Theresa May was guilty of atrocious campaigning. There is no doubt whatsoever that the awful election of 2017 will go down in history as a textbook example of how not to run for office and will be, almost certainly, Mrs May’s last ever campaign.

But, crucially, being a poor campaigner doesn’t make you a bad politician or a bad person and Theresa May is neither of those things. She is decent and principled and wants the very best for the country that she notionally leads. And that could be her saving grace.

In the classic 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’ a very young Anthony Hopkins plays a very young Richard the Lionheart. As he sits rotting in a dungeon with his two brothers one turns to him and says ‘My, you chivalric fool…as if the way one fell down mattered.’

Hopkins is given one of the great lines of modern cinema in retort and one that holds true for most of us ‘When the fall is all there is, it matters.’

It is a line which could be very, very relevant to Mrs May. We know that at some point in the next parliament she will be deposed. The Conservative Party have never had a problem getting rid of leaders who are electoral liabilities and it has been made absolutely clear to her that she falls into that category.

Mrs May’s main reason for being allowed to stay in office is because not doing so would almost inevitably result in another election and a probable loss to a resurgent Labour Party but nevertheless she has this once single  chance for greatness.

She could just conceivably put aside party political differences and seek to deliver a real, one-nation, BREXIT. A consensual process not only working across the British political spectrum but actually alongside EU partners.

She has the chance to negotiate the best deal and not simply the most politically beneficial one.

The point is that my assertion isn’t just fantasy. Just last week Mrs May addressed the thorny topic of the rights of EU citizens to remain in Britain and, of course, the rights of British citizens to remain in EU countries after BREXIT.

There are some who call for EU citizens to be used as some sort of bargaining chip, whose future should be left dangling as part of negotiating procedures. Others still would like EU citizens to be given the unilateral right to stay in the country post-BREXIT.

After keeping her cards so close to her chest for so long last week the Prime Minister revealed that she believes that all currently resident EU citizens should have the right to remain in Britain, if they so wish, gaining access to our benefits system after five years residence.

There appears to be some areas of discontent: the EU want final decisions about residents present in the UK to remain with the European Court of Justice whereas the British government do not; should Britain be able to deport EU prisoners when they finish their prison sentences?

But overall there is the basis of a sound deal which the vast majority of us, whether we were for leave or remain or EU nation government, can sign up to?

What if Mrs May can defy the odds in other areas of negotiation too? Is it just about possible that because she doesn’t have to appease a Tory anti-EU right or a hardened core of ‘bremoaners’ that she can set aside political calculations and focus what’s best for the future of the country?


Certainly without a parliamentary majority Mrs May is going to have to think how she can build bridges across Westminster. If she achieves it she could just manage to go down as one of our great peacetime leaders.   

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