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May is not leading on Brexit,but following

26/10/2016

lo12The road on which Theresa May currently finds herself is well travelled. Most successful politicians rely on a kind of necessary deception, projecting authenticity and credibility while conducting business in the only way that political business can be conducted: by negotiation.On balance, but never enthusiastically, May thought Britain would prosper more as part of an imperfect EU than out of it.

In an informal session with the global bankers Goldman Sachs, a month before the referendum, she stressed the financial value of membership and warned of the consequences of leaving the single market. Crucially, she admitted she thought companies that were in the UK to take advantage of the European market would relocate, something that would have a major impact on jobs as well as financial services.In a speech to a more sceptical audience in April, a month earlier, she had been more nuanced. But at neither event did she suggest, as she did in her conference speech earlier this month, that curtailing free movement must take priority over membership of the single market, nor advocate, as her home secretary did, that employers count their foreign workers, or that the fate of EU citizens in Britain might be a matter for negotiation. Quite the opposite in fact: in her on-the-record speech in April, she actually said that while free movement rules make it harder to control European immigration “they do not mean we cannot control the border”.

Since 23 June, Mrs May has said scarcely a kind word about the EU. This is not necessarily dishonourable: her rhetoric has been aimed at persuading the 52% who voted leave that she feels what they feel. She is marching to their tune. A consequence of the binary choice of a referendum as opposed to the choice between programmes offered by a general election is that it appears to deliver a single message that politicians are obliged to honour. We are all learning how to manage the consequences.

That is more or less the official line from No 10 this morning, in the wake of the Guardian’s story about her private speech: “We are working to make a success of this new opportunity.”

But this is no way to rebuild the confidence of voters in the good intentions of politicians. May is overinterpreting the result, using it to construct headlines and justify policies that are not borne out by the subsequent analysis of the no vote – which shows that it was neither exclusively among poorer people, nor mainly motivated by anti-migration sentiment – and then using it to promote division. This is not leading, it is following.Healing the divisions that the referendum exposed does not mean acting as if all the right was on one side. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority. Often, it is clear that May does really understand that. On the steps of Downing Street as the new prime minister in July, she began by acknowledging the kind of institutional injustice that makes people feel powerless, and she talked persuasively of an economy that works for all. That is the tone of voice that the post-referendum country needs. May is already establishing herself as one of the most evasive of modern prime ministers. The psychologist Peter Bull describes her as a sphinx-like equivocator, author of a new technique of never giving a specific answer to a direct question. This is a lethal electoral strategy.

The Theresa May who talked to the smart kids at Goldman Sachs a couple of months earlier might have allowed her audience to influence her tone of voice. She might have thought that her words would remain unreported. But I think that was the authentic Theresa May. She should remember that authenticity is the quality voters most value. And she should reframe her message about Brexit to reflect her real concerns before she leads a car-crash departure with all the miserable consequences that she foresaw when she was talking the truth to the city slickers.


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