Ben Worthy

May’s Brexit speech was a retreat disguised as an ultimatum.  Though it was spun as laying out a series of objectives and apparent ‘red lines’, and seemed to have been well received, it was, in reality, a retreat. Whether it is a Waterloo[i] style fall back (to a nearby place of greater safety) or a Dunkirk pell-mell near catastrophe (back to the island) remains to be seen.

From the EU level it was a retreat from the claims that there was somehow a magic, ‘bespoke’ (‘Red, White and Blue’) deal or a mythical ‘cake and eat it’ model that would get us all we want. The last six months were summed up rather pithily by @Law_and_policy as:

UK: "...or else".

EU: "Else."

UK: "That's not fair."

So far, so probable and sensible. A bluff was called and any magic balance was very unlikely. Political gravity and reality re-asserted itself, as it (probably) always would.

But it is domestically where May fell back furthest. May’s speech was the final victory of the hard Brexit wing of the party. No more ‘wait and see’ or fudge. May’s championing of immigration, leaving the common market (-ish) were all pure hard Brexit, exit Conservative party right. There is now, one commentator argued, no difference between the Conservatives and UKIP. The three ‘Brexiters’ who were supposed to be the three distracting stooges in the government, look like the drivers.

Even the tone of the speech was hard Brexit, of an English person clicking fingers in a foreign restaurant or the vicar’s daughter (responsible for those immigration vans) lecturing other countries on diversity. It also contained some rather, let’s say, eccentric claims about the referendum namely that Britain left partly because it doesn’t like coalitions[ii] or because of ‘our unwritten constitution’.[iii]

The real reason for the fall back is party. It is easy to forget how closely Prime Ministers are tied to their parties. As Anthony King said ‘to an extent that is sometimes overlooked by outsiders, the prime ministership is a party job before it is a governmental or national job’. May’s retreat is mainly because her party is primarily soft versus hard Brexit, and she has a (vanishingly) small majority. This means less room for manoeuvre and less authority and autonomy. May is in office but the hard Brexiters are now in power

May now follows the fatal footsteps of Major and Cameron before her. They all had a choice, as it were, to adapt Churchill’s distinction, between retreat (and giving in to a certain party view) and war (within their party). Unfortunately, Major and Cameron chose retreat but got war anyway. John Major fudged the Europe issue and had a serious war that led to a leadership election in 1995 and contributed to a huge electoral defeat in 1997. As Tim Bale has pointed out, David Cameron continually tried to ‘humor...or meet half-way’ his hard Eurosceptics. But Cameron still had war, a referendum and an early resignation.

May’s ‘advance backward’ has been quicker but is in the same direction. As the article 50 deadline approaches we would be wise to not mistake retreats for victories or confuse national and party interest. As Churchill said to those who celebrated Dunkirk ‘wars are not won by evacuations’.


[i] The Duke of Wellington’s army at Waterloo was primarily German and Dutch-Belgian. And the battle was won by the arrival of some other Germans. Just saying.

[ii] I count 23 years of coalitions/working arrangements at national government level in the past 100 years: 1916-1922, 1931-1935, 1940-45, 1976-79 (Lib-Lab pact) and 2010-2015-nearly ¼ of the past 100 years. This excludes power sharing in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over the past 16 years and coalitions at local government level.

[iii] Uncodified, technically, not unwritten. And getting less so.


Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets @benworthy1.

Image: Garry Knight  CC BY 2.0