Theresa May urgently needs to face down the anti-democrats seeking to dilute Brexit

Theresa May urgently needs to face down the anti-democrats seeking to dilute Brexit

I have never been much of a one for conspiracy theories. Reality is almost invariably too complicated and messy and unexpected to allow for any kind of long-term secret operation to subvert the natural order of things to work. When things go wrong, it is much more often the result of multiple cock-up theory.

But indulge me for a minute when I say that if one wanted to kill Brexit, it is certainly true that installing a Prime Minister who pretends to be implementing it methodically and yet gradually waters down its essential elements over a long period of time would be a more effective strategy than to deny democracy outright, Adonis-style.

So there will undoubtedly be hardline Brexiteers who by now suspect that this is the deliberate plan of Theresa May and those who surround her: to give little bits of ground time and again during a protracted process designed to turn-off and demoralise the 17.4 million Brexit voters of two years ago.

Has Mrs May, we might now ask, adopted her own version of the notorious “Monnet Method” by which the European elite gradually salami-sliced national sovereignty away, taking care not to grab to big a chunk in one go in case the publics of Europe noticed and objected?

So we get a consultative role for the European Court of Justice here and a “transition period” that replicates EU membership there, a progressive fudge on customs arrangements in the direction of creating something very similar to the EU Customs Union, a gradual move towards long-term open door immigration arrangements, perhaps in due course an extension of the transition, an open-ended replica of the Common Fisheries Policy or a commitment to continued close alignment with the EU in almost every conceivable field.

And all the time no hard and fast commitments that we can hold the Government to in regard to its proposed end state in areas such as migration, fisheries or trade.

As one looks on from day to day it is fiendishly hard to put one’s finger on key individual moments which amount to the great betrayal. But as this interminable process stretches out there is still a very definite worry that the Brexit frog is slowly being boiled.

The latest line from within the Remainer parts of the Government, being fed out via sympathetic columnists, is that the Prime Minister simply does not have the Commons votes to get through a Brexit deal that pulls Britain completely clear of the Customs Union. It is a matter of simple arithmetic, we are now told, with that overused aphorism about “learning to count” being faithfully trotted out.

The aim is to depict Mrs May as the honourable leader of a mission she did not ask for but has been given in terribly difficult circumstances; someone doing her best to implement the instructions of the electorate but having to compromise with reality again and again and again.

The trouble is that Mrs May does not seem to be trying very hard. She has not even decided to make the Customs Union issue a matter of confidence. She has barely lifted a finger to rally millions of Brexit voters against the anti-democrats in the Lords and Commons alike who seem to be throttling Brexit before our eyes.

To just say “we don’t have the numbers” in such circumstances (and don’t forget that she lost “the numbers” with her self-inflicted election catastrophe because enthusiastic conspiracy theorists certainly won’t) is pathetic.

Were a proper, enthusiastic Brexiteer in Downing Street it seems obvious that they would by now be leading a debate designed to pile pressure on pro-EU Tory MPs who were elected on a down-the-line Brexit manifesto and on Labour MPs sitting in Leave seats too. And the pro-Brexit masses are waiting to be led on this issue, yearning for a prime ministerial speech that rages at the betrayal of the political class and leads them into battle against it.

But from Mrs May’s operation we get almost none of that. Just a fudge here and a watering down there and a “wait and see” or a “something will turn up” from learned advisers briefing behind the scenes.

I have not been one of those UKIP people who calls for the PM to be ousted once every three-day news cycle. And I am still not calling for that. I am still convinced that, almost irrespective of what multiple minor dilutions are still to come, breaking free of the Treaty of Rome on 29th March next year will represent a massive victory.

It will be the moment when Project Remain – the mission of those defeated in the referendum to actually block Brexit altogether – dies. The moment when they have to rebrand as Rejoiners and face selling such an idea to an electorate in which even arch-pragmatists will surely blanche at the prospect of reopening this can of worms for many a long year.

But the big picture is one of Brexit being allowed to drift, of ministers still not making serious preparations for a “no deal” departure and therefore progressively making Britain more dependent on whatever Brussels decides to offer us.

We learned last week that none of the Government’s ideas for future customs arrangements will be ready by the end of December 2020. In effect this means Britain will find itself in the bizarre situation of begging Mr Barnier for an extension to the transition and no doubt paying-through-the-nose to get it.

This is not good enough either. Ministers should come back with the best serviceable idea that will be ready by December 2020 and rally behind it.

Otherwise, the Conservative Party risks finding that the electorate will implement its own Monnet Method in revenge: turning against it very gradually over a very long time and never forgiving a slow-motion betrayal that may well owe more to cock-up than conspiracy, but is none the less infuriating for that.