So she lasted the weekend. No one knew exactly what would happen to the UK after it voted to leave the European Union, as there were promises but no plan. But what has happened, and will go on happening, is the thing campaigners on either side had the least idea about.
As a result of the Brexit vote, and the ham-fisted attempts to implement it, the UK has become a global laughing stock. Whatever the rights and wrongs of policy and economics, the UK’s standing in the world is what has suffered most from Brexit. But though much of this is being blamed on its current government and Prime Minister, this is too easy an explanation. Given the product they are trying to sell, no one else would do any better.
Theresa May has made many mistakes since taking office, but her biggest one was taking the job in the first place. The British public has discovered that inside the strong, successful and confident woman they used to know is actually a-nobody-trying-to-escape “get out”. She may strut and bluster, like a game cock, but no one takes any notice of her. Whenever she says a certain thing is going to happen, like a new trade relationship with the US, her new friends contradict her without consulting her, not caring about the embarrassment this causes.
Theresa stays in power for two reasons. Firstly, she thinks it is her duty, even though when she put herself up for election, offering a programme, the public rejected her and she can’t get most of that programme through parliament.
Secondly, the Conservatives can’t agree who should replace her, even though most want her gone. All the big hitters, such as Boris Johnson and David Davis, have become embarrassments whose continued presence in government simply demonstrates that Theresa has no authority whatsoever. Smaller but more reasonable figures would pull the party in another direction, but this would make the present lot look like incompetent frauds, and the party feels that admitting this would damage it more than letting the present farce continue.
But no matter who they turn to, the UK’s governing party will never turn things round as long as it continues to pursue Brexit for the sake of it. No one knew how complicated Brexit would be to actually deliver, or that few other countries would be interested in the still-important UK if it left. The government probably did know, as it is refusing to public of 50 economic impact studies on Brexit which it commissioned itself. But everyone who supports Brexit is increasingly being destroyed by the very EU they so demonised.
There appears to be little support for a second referendum on Brexit, but this is because everyone can see the damage the last one did. They want the whole issue to go way, but the government has no choice but to shove it in people’s faces all the time. All this can do it damage the reputations of its members, and that of the country. The Conservative Party, which sold the people the Brexit referendum, has sold itself a pup, and can no longer avoid dragging themselves and country down with them, whichever direction they go in now. The puppy love has worn off and now the question is to do with this growing fur ball.
War of Pig’s Ear
Take Environment minister Michael Gove. He was previously Education Secretary and Justice Secretary, and regarded by many as one of the worst ever performers in these roles. It was a great surprise when Theresa May brought him back into the Cabinet, and he himself has joked about how he has his present job because he is a “recycled” minister.
Gove is an ardent Brexiteer. He is still committed to pursuing Brexit on the grounds it is “the will of the people”, and that will never change. So he is trying to find as many ways as he can to talk up its actual or potential benefits, as “the people” become increasingly concerned at the decline they see happening in front of them.
What is Gove now telling people the BIG benefit of Brexit will be? Apparently pig’s ears are a popular delicacy in China. According to Gove, the EU forces farmers to puncture their pigs’ ears to put identification tags on them. So in the brave new post-Brexit world, which has so far seen dozens of firms relocate, the pound fall lower than it has within anyone’s lifetime and no trade deals being secured to replace the EU market, everything will be alright because the UK can sell more pig’s ears to China.
This isn’t a joke, he actually said it. But the follow up was even more amusing. Farmers quickly pointed out that Gove was actually talking nonsense, because there are three ways to identify pigs when you move them around. You don’t have to pierce their ears at all. Not only does the EU say that, but so does Gove’s own department. Furthermore there are 100 times more pigs in China than there are in the UK, so even if this did become a new export market it wouldn’t be a significant one.
But did Gove backtrack? Not a bit of it. He then claimed the EU environmental regulations had been responsible for killing bees and other wildlife, and said that the government would deliver a “green Brexit”. This is despite the fact the EU is seeking to ban bee-killing pesticides but Conservative MEPs are fighting this ban, a position ideologically consistent with Gove’s claims that removing regulations will help the UK.
It used to be the EU which was seen as a mess. It was regarded as an incompetent, unwieldy body in which nobody could agree on anything, which was forced to impose its will through ridiculous policies and regulations which flew in the face of reality. But this is now a more accurate description of the UK government, or so it appears to many observers in both Europe and the UK.
Just after the referendum it was thought that several other countries would hold a similar one, as anti-establishment, and therefore anti-EU, parties have become increasingly influential. These voices have now gone very quiet. No one is rushing to do as the UK has done, even if they agree with it, because they see where it is leading, and has already led.
The most extreme and exclusive nationalists in the rest of Europe still see the UK as one of the better and more successful countries. Now they see even the UK becoming a joke, they don’t want their countries doing the same. They can see that there is no magic potion they can take which will make them handle leaving the EU any better. Countries which didn’t have as good a reputation to begin with aren’t going to risk the one they do have, whatever the economic and political arguments for and against.
Intangibles which kill
Reputation is always difficult to quantify in positive terms. It is difficult to say whether you have achieved a positive outcome due to your high reputation or for other reasons, like making a better offer or being a means of getting someone else off the hook.
But when it isn’t there, you know it, and you see the difference. When you do everything right, and someone else still gets on at your expense, you find out the hard way that reputation actually means something.
The EU’s Eastern members, associated with former Communist dictatorship, poverty and violence, joined the EU to give themselves new reputations because the old ones were hindering them. They have skilled and relatively cheap workforces, factories and agriculture and plenty to offer more affluent Westerners, as the numbers buying homes there testify. But they don’t have the positive reputations of other countries, and have thus become part of a two-speed Europe, an ongoing EU problem the UK public associates with enforced mass immigration, although EU Freedom of Movement does not mandate any such thing.
There are also many examples of individuals who lost nothing but reputation, and then found this was all. The 1950s singer Frankie Lymon was highly successful as a member of The Teenagers, but at age 15 was persuaded to go solo. Though he could still sing just as well, he didn’t make the same impact without a group around him to compare him with, and at around the same time he became a heroin addict. This was soon known to club owners, who didn’t want people supplying drugs to a minor on the premises, and his reputation was gone, and with it his career. Lymon still had celebrity value, and never ceased to have a good voice, but without his reputation all the tools in the world were worthless, even when he was clean.
The UK, and the members of its government, are fast becoming like Frankie Lymon. The country can still do most of the things it always did, but the rest of the world isn’t interested because all it sees is a bunch of clowns getting everything wrong. A steel spring made in the UK is just as good as it was yesterday, even if it was made by Smith Springs of Rochdale, the family firm of known child abuser Sir Cyril Smith MP. But would you buy it from his lot, when you can get others from governments you can rely on to conduct themselves in a businesslike way?
Brexiteers have not just discovered this concept. One of their longstanding claims was that the UK was being damaged by being only one of 27 nations in a meaningless alliance, and that it would be seen more positively if it engaged with the world as it did before 1973. As leader of the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world, it did indeed have a high reputation. But it is discovering the hard way that all its old colonies and allies want that same reputation themselves, and aren’t going to give it back to the UK through offering it trade deals when they can get better ones with the much bigger and stronger EU, which is their overwhelming priority.
Holes in all boats
With Boris Johnson still trying to rock the boat, David Davis incapable of explaining to the EU what the UK’s position is and Chancellor Philip Hammond, a Remainer, pursuing Brexit whilst telling everyone how bad it is, few seem to care that Jeremy Corbyn, the hard left Labour leader who is even more a demon to Conservative voters than the EU is, has supported Brexit throughout his career, unlike most of the Conservatives pushing it now. On this crucial question he is providing criticism but not opposition.
This should be hurting him and Labour, but the opposite is happening. The Conservatives are in charge, and therefore getting the same flak anyone would get for doggedly pursuing policies that aren’t seen to be working.
Theresa can see the damage being done. She tried to use her speech at the Conservative Party conference on 4th October to rally her troops. It was an unmitigated disaster, in which she lost her voice, coughed and spluttered, and the slogan on the wall behind her began falling off while she was speaking. She also repeated her usual meaningless mantras to an audience both astonished and despairing, although her few remaining advisers keep begging her not to: she now says “calm Brexit” instead of “strong and stable”, but that does not reflect reality either.
Theresa is in this position because she too took her reputation, and that of the country, for granted. She thought she could appoint Brexiteers to cabinet to expose their limitations. But she has only exposed hers more, and implied to the world that these incompetents are the best her country can produce, as they were the people selected.
Without her previous reputation to rely on, Theresa hasn’t a clue. If she admits that, she calls all her own voters idiots for supporting her until now, and they won’t like it. But until someone devises a positive vision of Brexit, supported by observable reality, which people can believe in, none of this is going to change.
Conservative Party membership has fallen to around 100,000. The Liberal Democrats, who have only 12 seats in parliament, now have more members. The Conservatives are still getting votes, but without active local members able to knock on doors that could quickly change. If the public perceives that the party is a spent force, with few committed members, they will not vote for it.
The Social Credit Party, which positioned itself as socially conservative, ran the Canadian province of Alberta from 1935 to 1971. During the latter part of that period its local membership shrank and aged. Since 1982 it has had no seats at all in the provincial parliament. In British Columbia the same party held power from 1952 to 1991, with only a three-year interregnum, but lost all its remaining seats five years later, for the same reason. The conservative UAP was in government in Australia almost throughout its existence, but collapsed because it hadn’t enough members and was reliant on particular big businessmen – the same sort of people who are desperately pushing for Brexit today, even after their motives have been rumbled.
Is it really possible that the UK Conservative Party will tear itself apart, and its country with it, as a result of Brexit? It claims to be the most successful political organisation in the world, and has always acted in a more united way than its rivals, whatever the differences between its members. But both sides of the Brexit argument have reputations, and now see the importance of them. If they continue their current race to the bottom, the UK voters may think the unthinkable, and sweep them away like old Soviet bloc Communists, however uncertain the alternatives may be.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.