Bernard Ingham: Be bold and unleash the Brexiteers – my memo to Theresa May

What should be Theresa May's message to the EU? Bernard Ingham sets out his advice to the Prime Minister.
What should be Theresa May's message to the EU? Bernard Ingham sets out his advice to the Prime Minister.
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WHAT, I am asked, would you advise Prime Minister Theresa May to do next in the Brexit saga. My answer lies in this note:


Prime Minister,

Let us face the truth: the public are fed up with Brexit confusion piled on Brexit confusion. Politics is being brought into disrepute. We cannot go on like this with so many other problems on your plate.

The polls suggest that, not surprisingly, you are still preferred by a long chalk as PM over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But the nation, your party and Parliament are horribly split over whether to accept your proposed settlement.

The only alternatives to what is now on the table seem to be no deal or a second referendum. Project Fear Mark III is already running against no deal. A second referendum would place Brexit in jeopardy, if only because the public has simply had enough of your Odyssey in the face of Brussels’ punitive intransigence followed by its counter-productive gloating.

It is idle to speculate what would happen if 17.4m Britons felt betrayed by a second referendum. But it would not be good news for our democracy. Faith in our political system urgently needs healing.

Nor do we know what disruptive obstacles, however temporary, a desperately peevish EU would put in our way if there were no deal and it lost its £39bn divorce settlement. But two can play that game and we are, after all, the world’s fifth-largest economy, not the tin-pot variety, with considerable international influence.

There is also not much profit in speculating how much Corbyn’s extremism has contributed to the mess by encouraging your own party – still the most potent enemy of any Conservative Prime Minister – to be difficult, not to say impossible. Brussels also seems not to have grasped that he would inevitably produce economic chaos and loss of freedom.

The truth remains that your own party reflects the divisions in our society over Brexit. These fractures in attitudes will take time to heal. And the time will be prolonged unless you can come up with a settlement that, as promised, cleanly restores to a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland its undeniable sovereignty with sole control over its borders, immigration, trade, economy, agriculture, fishing and right to make its laws.

Your proposed settlement sadly does not unequivocally deliver all that. Otherwise I would not be writing this note. Yet, without recovering the ability to govern ourselves, there seems no chance Parliament will approve your proposals.

With their familiar lack of principle and consistency, Corbyn and Co – and the SNP – will try to wreck whatever you come up with. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland not unreasonably expect a Tory government to live up to its title: the Conservative and Unionist Party.

You know better than I how much your tenure in No 10 is at risk, though I assume for the purposes of this note that your party will not be so unutterably stupid as to force you out.

So, what next? Frankly, it requires an act of exceptional statesmanship.

The public recognise and applaud your dogged determination and fortitude and that you are doing your level best in the circumstances. Sadly, it is not enough.

Parliament put the issue of Brexit to the people in 2016. They spoke and the proposed settlement does not undeniably deliver what the majority voted for. Some means must therefore be found of securing the nation’s expressed will.

Let boldness be your friend. In these circumstances the time has come to 
tell Brussels bluntly that their offer will not do. They must now accept that anything short of delivering an incontestably clean break will run up against the buffers.

You should perhaps add that, if the EU persists in trying to deny us full sovereignty, it will forfeit whatever reputation it may have left for constructive engagement with the UK and £39bn.

Accordingly, you are from this day charging a new team – ex-Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, backed by the ex-Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and Jacob Rees-Mogg – with extricating Europe from the current impasse.

The UK, you should add, is ready and willing to play a constructive role in Europe as a sovereign nation. Is the EU prepared to do so now?

It may well be that you will be criticised for being Machiavellian in letting Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg loose. But, assuming that they do not run away, you cannot be accused of leaving a stone unturned. Let them have a go. They deserve the chance.