John McTernan: Theresa May’s speech may turn out to be a last hurrah

Written by John McTernan on 11 October 2016 in Comment

Theresa May's speech to the Conservative Party conference was not conviction, but cowardice combine with opportunism, says John McTernan

John McTernan - Image credit: David N Anderson/Holyrood

One of the best pieces of advice in politics is that if you can’t meet people’s expectations then you should try and lower them.

It is also almost impossible for anyone to take. The time that politicians should listen – when they are in the first flush of power – is when they can’t hear it.

Having swept all before them – whether internal or external opponents – they believe that reality will bend to their will too.

Once they have learnt the hard way it is impossible to roll back time. Politics may be increasingly digital but you still can’t reboot and start again.


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Look around and you see the politics of the over promise everywhere.

It was at its most blatant in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to Labour Party conference where he set out 10 things he will never do because he will never be elected Prime Minister.

It is at its most pathetic in John Swinney’s pledge, heartfelt though it was, to raise educational attainment – a thing that is hard enough in its own right, but which has never been done anywhere in the world without taking on the education unions. Which Swinney has said he won’t do.

Consensus is fine, but it doesn’t produce change.

In many ways we live in the world of the over promise, or more correctly in the world made by the over promise – the world of Brexit.

If there is one underlying cause of the Leave vote in the referendum it is disillusionment with politics and politicians.

Fuelled by broken promises. That was a real force felt by anyone on the doorstep who was listening.

And it is about to get worse. Much worse. As Theresa May inadvertently showed us in her speech to Tory Party conference.

It is widely acknowledged that the prospectus offered by the Leave campaign was ‘factually challenged’.

There is no bonanza for the National Health Service post-Brexit.

The UK will be poorer – is indeed poorer already, as anyone travelling to the US or EU can tell you as they wince at the exchange rate.

The only question about Brexit is how badly the economy will lose out. Is it billions of pounds a year or tens of billions?

Leadership, political leadership, is in the end about putting country before party.

Obviously, you hope against hope that you never have to make that choice, but when the time comes you must not be found wanting. Theresa May has folded. And under no pressure.

Speaking truth to power is sometimes spoken of as a great political obligation, speaking truth to prejudice is the actual leadership test. The Prime Minister failed, and failed dreadfully.

It is not the reheated Milibandism that is the problem, though as he tweeted what was once ‘near Marxism’, from energy price controls to workers on boards, is now mainstream.

I can take the plagiarism, it’s the pandering I can’t stand. And the pretence.

The core of the speech is contained in two paragraphs: “But let’s state one thing loud and clear: we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen.

“We are leaving to become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country – and the deal is going to have to work for Britain.”

What a toxic mix – xenophobia and pure fantasy.

The UK without immigration has no agricultural industry, no viable hospitality industry, a depleted financial services sector and universities going bankrupt.

What, of course, is worse is the mainstreaming of the language of the marginalised extreme right.

There is actually nothing wrong with the UK that immigration wouldn’t solve – migrants, like my family once were, bring hope, energy, endeavour and commitment to Britain. And faith too, often.

Pathologising them has consequences. Words are weapons. The ugly racism that erupted after the Brexit vote was real and vile.

A young Brummie woman who I know well and respect, someone who is a part of our future, was abused three times on one journey the Sunday after the vote.

Hard working, entrepreneurial, British, but a target for abuse because she is a Sikh. Who wants to make her ashamed of her colour? Theresa May it turns out. And that is unforgivable.

We all know why Theresa May has done this – not conviction, but cowardice combined with opportunism.

She thinks she has no opposition - which is probably right when she looks across the floor of the House of Commons. Jeremy Corbyn is missing in inaction.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that she does and Nicola Sturgeon proved that in her swift and harsh words – issued in conjunction with Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Leanne Woods of Plaid Cymru.

In the absence of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition they can represent the 48 per cent of the country who did not vote for Brexit – and the countless numbers who did not vote for ‘hard’ or as we should call it, ‘stupid’ Brexit.

Somewhere there is a potent, indeed decisive, opposition – the 48 per cent plus the business interests, from farming to finance – and articulate political leaders.

Theresa May’s speech may turn out to be a last hurrah.

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