The Last Few Days Of May
79 years ago, almost to the day, through the last few days of May and into June, a British Expeditionary Force, what was left of it anyway, were trapped on the French coast at Dunkirk, facing bombardment, capture or death. It looked like the end of “our Island story” as Germans closed in on our trapped and defeated armies. Then the Panzers stopped. They’d outrun their supply-lines, so the Luftwaffe took over. But sand dunes are pretty good defence against aerial bombardment. Thanks to the miracle of Dunkirk, the Army, broken and without its kit, was saved. The Battle of France was over, the battle of Britain was about to begin.
Dunkirk is, of course Nigel Farage’s favourite film because he thinks it’s about plucky little Britain standing alone against all those grotty foreigners on the continent. But he misses details. In the opening sequence, the British soldier running through the suburbs of the town, encounters French forces. What were they doing? Fighting the heroic, forlorn and hopeless rearguard action which allowed the British (and a lot of others) to escape. Those french boys fought bravely so that our boys could get home. The film is about the most catastrophic defeat the British Army has experienced in its entire history. “The Miracle of Dunkirk” was a captivating lie. A brilliant piece of propaganda. But because the defeat of the Army, and of the country wasn’t total, we fought on. Although many brexiters are keen students of military history, they often learn the wrong lessons because they pay attention to the people doing the shouting and killing, and not to those doing the planning and logistics.
Those of us who don’t want to leave the EU fought on after the catastrophic, humiliating defeat of 2016. Which brings us to dogged, diligent, dull Theresa May. She has the heroism of Hugh Dowding, who refused to sacrifice any more planes to the defence of France. Which was controversial at the time but with hindsight, probably saved Britain. He too was shuffled off after his victory, in his case to the Ministry of Aircraft Production after the Battle of Britain, and was bitter about it for the rest of his life.
It’s hard to see what Theresa May can realistically achieve by sticking around. Her majority, like her authority is non-existent. Her legacy lies in tatters. But equally, it’s hard to see what replacing her with another Tory, especially one of the Faragist tendency, will achieve. The problems besetting the government will still be there for the next Prime Minister. There will not be a parliamentary majority for any way forward on Brexit, or indeed on anything else. The way to resolve this is through a general election. However thanks to the Fixed term parliament act (a big part of this current malaise, thanks Liberal Democrats…), that requires a vote of no confidence, and that requires that Labour vote for it. Which many of them won’t, not while they’re led by Jeremy Corbyn whom many Labour MPs regard as unfit for office.
There’s a chance this hopeless parliament drags on and on having the same old arguments about Brexit as the rest of the country, with the EU wearily extending and extending until 5th May 2022.
Theresa May will limp on for a while longer yet. But whatever Mrs May’s personal merits, she has run out of road to kick the can down and the Tory party is restless. For those of us who’ve thought that politics today couldn’t get any more farcical, the 1922 Committee has already voted on whether the rules should change to allow Conservative MPs another vote of confidence in their leader, but kept the votes sealed. Sad to say, but I think Gordon Brown Day, when Theresa May takes over from the “clunking fist” as the 35th longest serving prime minister, is the likely target for the Tory machine. Even if they can’t agree on the way forward, Tories can agree to let a powerless prime minister limp on up her own via Dolarosa, in order to spite a former Labour prime minister. By such trivialities are we now being governed.
Clearly someone will have to act as caretaker Prime Minister during the Tory leadership squabble. That could be Mrs May, or it could be someone like Philip Hammond, which would be great because I have him as Next Prime Minister at 50-1. I think Boris will struggle to get to the final two. He’s just not trusted enough by the parliamentary party so I think laying the favourite is a good bet. (Stop sniggering at the back). But if he did get the top job, defections would likely take his majority to below zero. So I think someone from the broad mass of the Tory party – someone who voted remain, but supported the Government loyally will be the final choice. Sajid Javid has long had my money on him, as has Rory Stewart, who also has the advantage of not actually running yet. Tory leadership elections are famously hard to predict.
So what of Mrs May on the eve of her departure from the stage?
I think history will be kinder to her than was the news. Much kinder. When she was selected as Tory leader, I thought she, compared to the alternatives, represented the best hope for liberalism. And she was. She held the line against the onslaught of populist forces. She tried to deliver a Brexit, consistent with the sour, bigoted and miserable mood of the campaign, but failed because of the inherent contradictions within any possible route to leaving the EU. I think Brexit is now nearly over. May was too decent, too reasonable and too diligent to take us out without a deal. Perhaps another Tory leader will waste another couple of years trying to smash an agreement through. Perhaps he or she will be denied a deal, and try to crash the UK out without a deal. But parliament, this one anyway, will not let them.
Mrs May defeat in trying to deliver a reasonable brexit was an honest one, and right now, at the moment of her defeat, she’s probably won. Diligent planning and international co-operation win wars, not bigoted rhetoric and beery farts. That is why we’re still in the EU. Mrs May’s plan was a plan to actually leave the EU and seek our fortune outside, and if we do leave her deal, or something very like it will be the result. But that’s not what Brexiters wanted. Not really. They wanted the war, but without any of the logistics and planning. They wanted revolution. Brexiters gave the order, but without the resources to carry it out. It is the remainers who correctly judged the lesson of Dunkirk. You haven’t lost until the enemy has won.
I can’t see how we actually can leave now. The momentum has gone. Brexiters have no plan and no ideas beyond shouting “democracy” at people who disagree, as if one close, flawed poll three years ago somehow outweighs the fact the Brexiters failed completely and the country can’t really be bothered any more. There simply isn’t the appetite for “Blood, sweat, toil and tears” necessary to leave the EU because, and I really get bored of pointing this out to Brexiters, the EU isn’t Nazi Germany.