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23 June 2016 Brexit Referendum

For those who have forgotten just what we were voting about at the EU Referendum in June 2016. Photo: G Matlock

It may have crowned the infamous 1977 all-British James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, but the Carly Simon song which accompanies the credits could, nay should, be dedicated to the memory of the incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May.

For all the howls of backbenchers, protests of government ministers and jeering of the official Opposition, this formidable woman has proven she is a leader.

Despite delivering a painful compromise solution to Britain’s ambitions to quit the European Union successfully, delivered she has. And one day history, if not us mere mortals, may reflect on her as a wartime-peacetime leader.

When I see The Sun newspaper last night call her “stubborn” for holding out with an apparently unpopular Brexit draft plan, I am tempted to rewind the tape to when another woman who showed guts in the face of divisive policies was championed as a conviction politician. That was Margaret Thatcher. How badges have changed!

Mrs May is not Lady Thatcher, but she too is coming up against a lot of opposition. Only this time its loudest from her own party, the Conservatives, rather than Labour.

I felt  that one of her ministers, Rory Stewart, summed it up nicely and accurately this morning on the radio. He remarked that the Brexit draft is being criticised by those who have barely read or understood its voluminous pages and is being spun into frenzied fiction to serve motives far narrower than the national interest.

It is true – and I have been public expressing such criticism – that May’s judgement at times has lacked. She made the fatal error at the very start of her time at Downing Street to state that she would trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. That has determined the folly and time pressure that has followed to wrap up a deal with the EU in just two years.

Then there was the decision to go ahead with a 2017 General Election. That too weakened her position and now haunts her as she tries to win enough votes to get Parliament to approve her trophy legislation.

But on the other hand, as a declared Remainer, she has embraced the vexed issues of Brexit as well as any successful lawyer who personally doesn’t believe his client’s  innocence.

Few people know the real issues May has had to grapple with to get the EU to budge. Remember how heavy-handed Brussels officials were at the beginning and how even a few months ago they led her up the garden path to then reject and humiliate her. She might have quivered in her voice but she never caved in. And now the EU has finally understood that the process of negotiation means both sides must give a little, and the deal has allowed the UK access to the European market while curbing immigration.

So when I hear resigning ministers like Esther McVey complain that the Brexit draft is nothing like what the voters opted for in the 2016 referendum I regret to say that is utter nonsense. Voters were not given options and models of trade and economy to choose between. All it came down to was whether we wanted to be a part of the EU or not.

Even the opposition who doubted they would win actually had no coherent policy for exit. That’s all been debated in the 30 months since the popular poll. Yet even now no one has a defining alternative to the Brexit deal on the table, delivered on budget and on time by May.

I have never been a fan of the EU, but I am also not a zealot who thinks Brexit at any cost is good for the UK. We must act in the national interest and not follow dogma. That would be as foolhardy as some of US President Trump’s wilder ideas.

So while civil war has now erupted in the ruling Conservative Party, they need to think hard about what’s next. In 1982, just as the Falklands War was about to start in the spring, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular premier of the 20th century. But her backbenchers could be silenced when they tried to rise up. She threatened them with a General Election, which in 1982 would at the depths of a recession have meant most of the Tories unemployed. A year and a war with Argentina later, Thatcher won a landslide.

The Conservatives have quickly forgotten on what unstable ground they stand. They had to wait 18 years for the public to trust them in power without a coalition partner. Do they want a similar political wilderness now that they evidently cannot show a united front?

The Liberal Democrats are pro-Europe so of course they won’t back the Brexit plan even if it is the best of a bad option. Labour on the other hand is largely eurosceptic under socialist Jeremy Corbyn and they smell blood. They know that if Parliament fails to back the draft or if even sooner May is ousted in a leadership challenge that could come in days, there’s a strong chance of a General Election and one that Labour would win. So of course they are going to put political ambition to govern ahead of the national interest.

The fact the EU is even talking about building some flexibility into the process to allow longer transition is an olive branch rather than a ruse.

The EU too wants a successful conclusion because they don’t want to be remembered as the ones who destroyed Britain’s esteem the way the French did to the Germans at Versailles. And the EU relies on a huge consumer market in the UK to sell its wares, so best not to cripple us.

The draft is not ideal. But nothing in politics is. May has been a formidable and decent and determined premier and lead from the front even as her guard began to desert behind her. What is also overlooked is the lack of real guts of her nearest opponents who resigned her government. David Davies, Boris Johnson and others.

Everyone wants to be Prime Minister on the day the treaty gets signed in front of press cameras. Everyone wants to be the one to tell their grandchildren that for better or worse they were the one to get Britain out of Europe.

But no one wants to put in the heavy spade work, numbing hours and blistering arguments to win a compromise from the heavy-handed Brussels machine. May is an inspiration to all women fighting adversity in society. I wish her every success.