“WELL Mr Baldwin, this is a pretty kettle of fish!”
So said Queen Mary to the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at the time of the abdication in 1936.
Substitute ‘Mrs May’, for ‘Mr Baldwin’, and the same could be said of Britain today. Brexit, the election, terrorism: a pretty kettle of fish it is indeed.
How have we got to this sorry state?
A large slice of blame must lie with certain MPs on the right of the Conservative party whose passionate hatred of the European Union and all it stands for outweighs any sense of pragmatism or compromise.
Oblivious to the economic interests of the country, and fearful of the populist xenophobia whipped up by Ukip, they forced the previous prime minister, David Cameron, to hold a referendum, campaigned on a raft of falsehoods and, to their surprise, won.
So Brexit it had to be, and with it a new Prime Minister.
The ‘reluctant remainer’ Theresa May was pressed into service and, hijacked by a right-wing flushed with victory, decided to hold an election, campaigned with a breathtaking degree of ineptitude, and darned nearly lost.
Enough of the past.
We are where we are.
As the late Denis Healey’s maxim goes: “When you are in a hole, stop digging.”
The ‘loony right’, with a fair amount of help from the ‘loony left’, has got us into this hole. Now we have to get ourselves out of it.
Here is my advice.
Firstly, stop banging on about Brexit. It presents a grave threat to the nation’s economic well-being. It should be de-politicised.
Voters are typically uninterested in it now. They are more interested in their standard of living and the quality of public services. If it’s a choice between quality of life and the influence of the European Court, the former gets their vote every time.
Brexit has already proved not to be a vote winner. It is rapidly becoming a vote loser. The politics of the EU may have been rejected by a slim margin, but the economics of the single market have not.
It was never on the ballot paper, and free access to it is critical to the standard of living of those very voters who chose unwittingly to leave it. As are the necessary measures to deal with terrorism, so the referendum result was riddled with conflicts.
Something has to give, and it is time for the grown-ups to get involved. In the absence of a political ‘Grand Alliance of the Centre’, which I called for after the referendum, the civil servants should take charge.
This is what I would do. Appoint the best and the brightest to the Brexit team, ensuring it comprised experienced public servants who understand the European scene: its history, languages and culture, why the EU exists and what motivates it. Invite Nick Clegg to join it. He has all the qualifications and he needs a job.
I would tell the team to seek a compromise and take a passive stance. My ‘mission statement’ would be based on the mantra: “Look, we had this referendum, the majority voted to ‘leave’, the PM pressed the Article 50 button and we have to do something about it. It is better for us all that we reach a consensus. You (the EU) understand the politics behind this. You need the UK and, frankly, we need the EU. A bust-up will help no-one.”
A Norway-style compromise would settle the Brexit question. Parliament would agree, with some outward grumbling but an inward sigh of relief, and that would be the end of the matter. When the predictable cry of ‘immigration’ is raised in protest, I would nail this with some facts.
Fact – we already have complete control over immigration from outside the EU.
Fact – by and large EU workers don’t take British jobs, they do jobs British workers don’t want to do or lack the skills to do.
Fact – ‘benefit tourism’ from the EU has already been largely eliminated, thanks to measures taken by the past prime minister.
Fact – the standard of many service industries has improved immeasurably thanks to workers from the EU, and we owe it to EU immigrants – machinists, welders and the like – that our already beleaguered manufacturing sector has not shrunk more than it has.
Then I would turn back to the Conservative Party with a warning. “Listen to the electorate”, I would say. “You have disrupted and destabilised the country. They have let you off this time. They won’t let you off again. Forget about a leadership election. Whatever her failings, Theresa May has at least ‘won’ the election, and more people voted for her than did for Jeremy Corbyn.”
Lastly, I would threaten the ‘loony right’. They should either unite behind the PM – as most of the ‘loony left’ did behind Tony Blair when he reformed Labour in 1995 – or they can leave the party. Otherwise the party itself will split and that will be the end of it.
This is a time for cross-party unity, not discord. None of us, I am sure, want Great Britain to become like Venezuela.
Sir Andrew Cook CBE is owner and chairman of William Cook Holdings Limited, one of Europe’s leading steel and engineering groups. A Tory donor, he was treasurer of the Conservatives In campaign.