Jayne Dowle: May’s national tour risks a not-so grand Brexit fall

Theresa May visited the Irish border last week to consider Brexit options. Today, she takes her Cabinet to Newcastle.
Theresa May visited the Irish border last week to consider Brexit options. Today, she takes her Cabinet to Newcastle.
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I VERY much doubt that she has taken the overnight express coach from Victoria Station, but as the Prime Minister shuffles her papers for the Cabinet meeting in Newcastle today, she really should be musing on the meaning of the word “national”.

Her trip to our part of the world is the Government’s acknowledgement of the Great Exhibition of the North, which is taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead this summer.

Therefore, it was arranged long before the recent Brexit summit at Chequers, which led to an uneasy compromise on our exit from the EU and the cataclysmic resignations of Brexit Secretary David Davis and then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

If Mrs May is hoping that she will find a friendlier welcome up here, away from the torrid climate of Westminster, recent events mean that she is likely to be disappointed.

This visit to Newcastle is hardly the most portentous way to kick off her summer tour of the British Isles, initially heralded as her way of reaching out to “grass-roots” Conservative Party members and supporters and persuading them to support her Brexit plans.

Backbench MPs claim they are being lobbied by local activists to fight against her proposals. Clearly the Prime Minister is worried that Tories who voted Leave think that her latest approach to a smooth and beneficial exit is far too soft.

As well as presenting herself before her people, this Newcastle trip was actually part of a carefully-planned exercise to make announcements about investment in the North and discuss local growth, skills and export strategy.

After the events of the past week or so, her people may now be forgiven for asking “what export strategy?”. Those running their own businesses will be more worried about the onerous prospect of filling in customs forms for the first time than listening to Mrs May’s gritted teeth reassurances. Up to 250,000 small businesses in Britain are about to be asked to start preparing to make customs declarations.

And now it emerges that Mrs May is not just on a personal PR mission. In a stroke of double-think which takes some getting your head around, apparently, the Prime Minister and her team are also going to spend her summer tour warning us all of the dire consequences of a “no-deal” Brexit.

From the start of this week, consumers and companies will be given detailed advice in weekly “bundles” on how to prepare for “a disorderly Brexit”. Things to look forward to include food shortages and chaos at ports and airports, it is said.

So not only do we risk the prospect of bumping into Mrs May as we unhook the caravan and set the wine to chill, we’re also in danger of having a leaflet about stockpiling baked beans shoved in our hand by a worried-looking civil servant.

Imagine the scene. There you’ll be, relaxing on the beach at Scarborough or taking in the glorious view from some beauty spot in the Yorkshire Dales, and up will pop the man from the ministry (or the Department for Exiting the European Union as it is officially known) muttering incomprehensible garbage about free trade, tariffs and the pressing necessity of taking out your own medical insurance if you plan to leave the country.

A DExEU spokesman said: “The Government’s priority will be to make sure that the citizens, businesses and organisations who need to understand this information are kept informed and reassured.”

Wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense for the whole government, civil servants, advisors, envoys and consultants to step back for a few weeks, shut up shop and take stock?

Speaking as an ordinary citizen, I think we are all confused enough over the Brexit negotiations already.

Yet every day now, Mrs May and her remaining (no pun intended) ministers seem intent on befuddling us into submission. Is the darker purpose of this national tour and its accompanying public information campaign to simply exhaust us so much that we just end up saying to the Government “Please, in the name of God, get on with it.”

If so, it is no way to run a country, nor set in place proper arrangements for how we are to proceed when we find ourselves standing alone in the world. Several leading Conservative MPs, including Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, are even suggesting that the only way to break the impasse would be to form a temporary cross-party or “national” government.

That said, however grim things look, the odds of it actually coming to pass because of Brexit seem impossibly slim. And Labour has been surprisingly quiet.

Still, as she sets off around the country on her national tour, Mrs May could do much, much worse than to really consider what that word actually means.