Situation Vacant: Prime Minister of the UK – Must Have Safe Pair of Hands

 

Goodbye!

The resignation. Goodbye DC!                                                                                                      Photo PA

Cameron has resigned, Corbyn looks like he might have to and Tim Farron is a Liberal Democrat. While I remain convinced that Brexit was the correct decision, there must be a resolution to the UK crisis of leadership soon.

I take it as read that the UK will leave the EU at some point between now and the expected date of the next General Election in 2020. I don’t think that the EU will countenance any delay that could conceivably be any longer than that, and nor do I think that any Government could really refuse (although it might delay) to invoke Article 50 of the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty. It may seem surprising, but it’s actually not possible for the EU to expel a member country, but suspension could happen[1].

Petulance

Granting a referendum is the only credit that can be given to Mr Cameron. Other than giving us the chance to vote, he has been, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Apparently, while he was ‘negotiating’ with Our European Masters for ‘reform’ of the EU, it was the case that the UK would do well outside the EU.

Mr Cameron did not get any ‘reform’ worth having. This might be because the EU officials and heads of government didn’t believe the UK would leave under Cameron so saw no need to give any serious ground. Just as likely, they had no intention of granting any reforms in any event.

So when those negotiations produced little of substance, suddenly Cameron now thought that Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s future was so reliant on continuing EU membership that voting leave would destroy our economy and lead to a third world war (or something). As others have observed, if Cameron really thought the latter, he should never have offered the chance to leave, or perhaps in doing so, he should have ordered the military to prepare for war!

Indeed, it seems very likely that it is Cameron’s fault that the Civil Service did not do as much planning for Brexit as might have been expected. It is widely reported that civil servants were ‘mentally working on a Brexit Plan’[2] but not doing any formal work. While it could have been damaging to the ‘Remain’ case if such plans had become public that is no reason not to do them. It is usual practice for the civil Service to prepare for the victory of either political party in a General Election (party manifestos are never detailed plans). Surely, Brexit planning should have taken place in the same way? That it did not, seems a major lapse on the part of the Prime Minister, as it won’t have been the fault of the civil service.

Having set out his stall as a very fervent ‘Remainer’, and having failed to carry the country with him, it is perhaps not unreasonable that Cameron should tender his resignation to the Queen, and no reason at all for her not to accept it.

However, there is no real excuse for his petulance in doing so[3]. It is symptomatic of an arrogant, self-centred man, who – having climbed up the greasy pole – showed little enthusiasm for governance. Leading the negotiations to leave the EU, and starting to speak to other trading partners around the world, would have been a way to restore his reputation and leave his mark on history as a responsible, mature and effective statesman.

Harold and Jim showed the Way

The 1975 referendum was played rather differently by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and his Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan. In order to try to maintain unity in the Labour Party – then largely sceptical – Wilson held a referendum. This was after a ‘renegotiation’ in which, really, very little was achieved. As Vernon Bogdanor has said “the re-negotiation was largely cosmetic because the key decision that had been taken, as I have said, was that it would not mean amending the Treaty of Rome”[4]. Callaghan and Wilson were, it seems, personally anti Britain’s membership of the EEC. As Bernard Donoughue observed of Wilson “He is required to be in favour, but really he is a little Englander”[5]. Wilson made only a few speeches in support of the ‘Yes’ cause in that referendum campaign[6]. Foreign Secretary Callaghan refused to commit at all. As Dominic Sandbrook observes “Wilson’s ambiguity was symptomatic of the entire campaign”[7].

There were good reasons for this. It meant that Wilson and Callaghan, as leaders of the Labour Party, were as inoffensive to both sides of their party as possible. Secondly, they could both appear somewhat above the fray, stable and statesmanlike. Thirdly, and more importantly, it meant that they were in a position to implement ‘the will of the people’, whatever that turned out to be.

David Cameron, as is well known, did not try to remain aloof. He threw himself into the campaign, making several appearances in televised debates and doing the round of the political talk shows. Both he and George Osborne were very closely associated with the ‘Remain’ camp. This has made it impossible for Cameron[8] to continue and enter into the negotiations that arise out of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Cameron could have been statesmen-like. He could have expressed his opinion, but soberly in a balanced way, perhaps in the form of a referendum-eve speech or statement ostensibly encouraging people to vote. But he didn’t. Cameron could have learned from Harold Wilson. But he didn’t. Enough of him.

So What to Do?

The Conservative Party has small majority in the House of Commons. The Labour Party is in greater disarray than the Tories. It seems then that the Conservatives can, and short of some coalition, must continue to form a Government[9]. But who should lead the Tory Party and become Prime Minister?

As I write, a few names are coming forward, and factions forming around the front-runners. Justine Greening is advocating Johnson/May ‘dream-team’ ticket. It is all moving rather fast. The Conservative Parliamentary Party and MEPs will select two names to go forward to a ballot of the (majority Brexit) Tory membership.

I’m not going to recommend anyone just now, but I would like to make a suggestion: that the Conservatives select someone who will not be their leader at the next General Election, but a ‘safe pair of hands’ to get Brexit on track.

Statesman or Stateswoman

The country needs a new PM as quickly as possible. Someone who will work for the next two to three years in negotiating and implementing Brexit in accordance with the article 50 procedure. They will also have to work very hard on new trade agreements with countries outside the EU[10].

Ideally, it would be an experienced politician with an eye for detail – as the devil will be in the detail with the upcoming negotiations. International diplomacy must be a strong point. Any candidate for the role must appear solid and reliable, certainly not a radical or a maverick.

By being an interim leader, they would be able to get on with the job without being attacked by the opposition parties, under any pretence, just for future electoral purposes. Once the UK is out of the EU, they should be prepared to stand down for a new Tory Leader who would then fight the general election of 2020.

Ideally, whatever their views on ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ might have been, they should not have had a high profile on either side of the campaign. I don’t suggest neutrality as a requirement as that would rule out pretty much everyone.

At the moment, I confess I can’t think of anyone who fits this bill. Perhaps there is a good candidate or candidates in the Lords? Or are the Tories completely washed up now? If so, who will lead us?

I’d be delighted to receive any suggestions in the comments below.

 

 

[1] See https://www.ecb.europa.eu/pub/pdf/scplps/ecblwp10.pdf for a discussion of this.

[2] See http://www.civilserviceworld.com/articles/news/gus-odonnell-civil-servants-will-be-mentally-working-brexit-plan

[3] http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11663380&ref=NZH_FBpage

[4] Vernon Bogdanor Lecture  “The Referendum on Europe, 1975” Gresham College 15 April 2014

[5] Bernard Donoughue “Downing Street Diary”

[6] Which suggests that Mr Corbyn was using Harold’s Instruction Book in 2016, but Corbyn was neither Prime Minister nor is he as wily as Harold Wilson.

[7] Dominic Sandbrook ‘Seasons in the Sun’, p323

[8] And probably Osborne too. At time of writing, he seems to be incommunicado.

[9] There could be a dissolution and a new general election, but I will assume here that the Fixed Term Parliament Act is not over-ridden.

[10] In the longer run, this is actually more important than the arrangements with the EU. Hopefully this point

will not be overlooked.