British Politics

Timing Is Everything

May 19, 2017

Multiple Pages
Timing Is Everything

William Gladstone, the great Victorian Liberal leader, the most successful electoral politician of the age, believed that success in politics depended on right timing. This was why he often withdrew into silence, hesitating, turning things over in his mind, before coming to a decision and announcing it when he believed the right moment had come.

It has to be said that our present prime minister, Theresa May, has in this respect shown herself to be a pupil of Gladstone. Much as I dislike and distrust her, she has shown the ability to keep her cards concealed, close to her chest, until the time seemed right to play them. So, having tepidly supported the Remain side in last year’s referendum, she emerged as a prime minister committed to Brexit. Then, having repeatedly declared that there would be no general election till the Parliament elected in 2015 had run its five-year course, she made a right about turn, perfectly timed and executed, and is heading for victory with, it seems, a very large majority.

“For the moment, Brexit rules. Theresa May has calculated well.”

In contrast I wonder if David Cameron, condemned to leisure and hours on the tennis court by his own mistakes, is now brooding on the question of timing. As he glances across the Channel and looks at Emmanuel Macron, who has won the presidential election on a wave of optimism, who speaks lovingly of the European Union and yet seeks reforms that will rejuvenate it, does Mr. Cameron wonder how things might be if he had chosen to hold his referendum this June rather than last year? It was, after all, a close-run thing, lost by 48 to 52. Might the figures have been reversed—might they indeed have shown a comfortable majority for Remain—if the vote had been held after the French presidentials? Indeed he would then surely have fought a different style of campaign, optimistically committed to the E.U. rather than one that dwelled on the economic dangers of leaving. Project Hope rather than Project Fear.

This isn’t, of course, how things look in Britain today. Recent polls suggest that Brexit is now accepted by more than two-thirds of the electorate. Perhaps half of those who voted Remain seem at least reconciled to leaving the E.U. Before negotiations on the terms of our departure have even started, Brexit is seen as the new reality. Those Remainers who have fallen into line behind Mrs. May have perhaps mostly done so reluctantly, with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, without enthusiasm. Other Remainers who hoped that there would be a surge of support for the Liberal Democrats as a wholeheartedly pro-European party are disappointed. There is no such surge. The Liberal Democrats may pick up a few seats, regaining some lost in 2015, but that’s all. They have made no impression, and their own campaign has been feeble—feeble because it’s lacking in spirit and hope.

Even in Scotland, where there was a 62–38 majority for continued E.U. membership and where the governing Scottish National Party was committed to the E.U., Europe has played little part in the election. The Scottish Conservatives’ leader, Ruth Davidson, campaigned vigorously and effectively for Remain, on one TV appearance eviscerating Boris Johnson to the delight of pro-European viewers. But now Johnson is foreign secretary, and in this election Ms. Davidson has scarcely said a word about Europe. Instead she has concentrated, wisely, on the defense of the United Kingdom, opposing the SNP’s plan for a second Scottish independence referendum for which she says, not entirely truthfully, there is no demand. Given that her party is rising in the polls and is on course to take a handful of seats from the SNP, she has evidently chosen well, got her timing right. For the first time in years she has put the SNP on the defensive.

Of course, nobody knows yet how the Brexit negotiations will go. Nobody knows how we will fare outside the E.U., and indeed the answer to that question won’t be known till some years after our departure. Brexit may be the success that Mrs. May now assures us it will be; or it may not. Likewise, nobody knows whether Macron’s influence may indeed lead to the reform and rejuvenation of the E.U. It’s quite possible that, depending on the answer to these questions, pro-E.U. sentiment will revive in Britain. Indeed some would say that, given the age profile of the two sides in the E.U. referendum, with a majority of the young backing Remain, such a revival is likely. But the time is not ripe for such a revival, and for the moment, Brexit rules. Theresa May has calculated well.

Meanwhile, Remainers can only speculate on how things might have been if David Cameron had timed things differently, if we were voting next month in the E.U. referendum rather than a general election, and doing so in the light of Macron’s victory in France and the promise of real reform of the E.U. And David Cameron himself might reflect that he would still be prime minister if he had waited longer before asking us to choose between continued membership in the E.U. and Brexit.

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