The real reason people won’t back May’s Brexit plans could be more to do with her poor communication skills than the agreement itself
We need leaders who can make the virtues of compromise sound better than the vivid rhetoric of ‘vassal state’ and ‘colony’
Theresa May is not going to have many entries in dictionaries of quotations, or, to update that sentence: her Wikiquote page on the internet is not going to be long. She already has one, and it features her “nasty party” comment from the 2002 Conservative conference, but not (yet) her “citizens of nowhere” phrase from 2016.
Nor does it include her best known comment in the 2017 election, “nothing has changed”, although it does have one of the finest examples of her stiffness in dealing with the general public, when she was asked a question by a factory worker in Gateshead this year: “I enjoy cooking, which has a benefit: you get to eat it as well as make it.”
The prime minister is a dull speaker. She uses plain language, and has a tendency to lapse into the bureaucratic jargon used by the civil servants who brief her. In some ways this is a strength. No one accuses her of trying to sell her EU withdrawal agreement by spin and fancy rhetoric. For her many hours in the House of Commons in the past two months, she has set out her case straightforwardly and with obvious sincerity.
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Having been accused of hiding away during the 2017 election campaign, she has gained respect for her tenacity, and no one doubts her grasp of the detail. But for most of those hours at the despatch box, her Brexit deal has been losing support. How much of this is because May is a poor communicator; and how much is because of the deal itself? Impossible to separate the two, of course, but the language the prime minister uses has not helped her cause. Again and again the discussion has been about “the backstop”, as if this were some abstract mechanism designed to oppress the UK after it has left the EU.
If May called it “the guarantee of an open border in Ireland” it might at least provide some counterweight to the vivid language of many MPs on her side of the House: “vassalage”, “colony” and “rule-taker”. Her opponents still wouldn’t like the terms of the guarantee, because the UK will not be able to change them without the EU’s consent. But at least she would be constantly reminding them of what it is for.
This is part of a bigger failing: May’s inability to make the case for a soft Brexit – one that keeps us in a close economic relationship with the EU – as a compromise capable of uniting most of the 52 per cent who voted to leave and many of the 48 per cent who wanted to stay.
Maybe this is mostly a failing of politics rather than of language. If she had from the start reached out to Labour MPs – or, at least, if she had done so after the 2017 election deprived her of her majority – she might be in a better position now. Suppose she had appointed Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the home affairs select committee, to head a cross-party commission on the Irish border question. The task of getting the backstop through the Commons might look less daunting now.
But politics and language are inseparable. Imagine if Boris Johnson had been prime minister and had negotiated something like May’s deal: I think he could have sold it better as a necessary compromise. After all, as mayor of London he successfully appealed across party lines to Labour voters – and just because he became a proponent of a hard Brexit as a powerless cabinet minister doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have adopted a different policy if he’d been in charge. Or would his extravagant communication style, like Donald Trump’s, be bound to draw him away from compromise and towards extreme policy options?
Whatever the answer to that question, what we are missing now is a persuasive advocate of compromise. This could partly be a reaction to the tarnished skills of Tony Blair and David Cameron, but there is a hole in the centre of our politics. Whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s qualities in communicating a radical social-justice message, he is engaged in defensive obfuscation on the question of Brexit.
That means the risk is higher than it ought to be of the “extreme” outcome of leaving the EU without agreement – simply because of the lack of leadership in a confused House of Commons, torn between May’s compromise and simply handing the problem – “too difficult for us” – back to the people in a referendum.
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