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Britain is faced with a leadership crisis.

By Mustapha Karkouti, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

Theresa May's leadership is in crisis - again. Or maybe "still" would be the more appropriate word. This seems to be settling into a chronic condition, rather than a recurring affliction. To be scrupulously fair, wouldn't any prime minister, from any party, be subject to constant threat under these very exceptional circumstances? There is no political leader in the country who could rely on unanimous support from his followers on the process of Brexit negotiations, especially given the obstacle course that the EU is determined to make of them.

This is not to say that Brexit - and the chaos that erupts over it within Prime Minister May's own government at regular intervals - is the only problem. In fact, it is just the most obvious symptom of a wider difficulty that is inherent in her attitude to being prime minister. Her own favourite characterisation of her approach is the endlessly repeated mantra: "I'm getting on with the job." Clearly (and, no doubt, sincerely), she sees this as an expression of dogged virtue, possibly even an implicit nod to the hard-working, diffident, getting-on-with-it elements of society with whom she would like to identify, rather in the way that Margaret Thatcher once did with prudent housewives. Just getting on with the job isn't enough. It would probably never be enough in modern politics but now, with this huge issue of national sovereignty dominating discussion, it seems grotesquely inadequate. Certainly since the Sixties, and possibly since the 18th century, politics has been about ideas: freedom, equality, justice, solidarity, opportunity - whatever. Whether you like it or not, if you are heading a government or even leading an opposition party, you must stand for something: a set of ideals, a moral mission, a transcendent idea of what society should be like.

Sometimes, in periods of general consensus, conflicting ideals have to be trumped up to satisfy the popular imagination. But not now: ironically, the circumstances of our exit from the EU present a peculiarly advantageous moment to offer just such an inspiring message. How might post-Brexit Britain reinvent itself? The new freedoms could provide endless opportunities for renewal. Why not show yourself to be open to a genuine national discussion of the possibilities?

But instead, May seems determined to bury herself and her divided government in the technical detail. So every disagreement and contradiction among her disputatious Cabinet becomes the headline of the day, or the running story of the week. "Getting on with the job" is a way of avoiding the big ideas - and so the smaller ones take over. Of course the technical matters have to be resolved, but there must be some overall conception of what we are striving for in the end: an ultimate picture into which all these details will fit. This is partly what the EU bullies - sorry, negotiators - mean when they say, "you must decide what you want". Where is the great idea - the final triumphant realisation - toward which this is heading? The hard-line Brexiteers know what they have in mind, at least in the first instance: a sovereign country in control of its own money, borders and laws. But neither they nor May (who claims to agree) have done much to fill out what happens next. What sort of future do we contemplate when we are free of the Brussels constraints? What about her original theme of social mobility? Does she believe it will be positively enhanced by leaving the EU? Who knows? She scarcely mentions it any more. Apart from extricating ourselves from the messy complications of EU membership, what is her government about?

Economic displacement

There are enormous changes taking place in the lives of great swathes of the population in Britain and Europe that are not being addressed, such as the economic displacement of the old industrial communities for whom the "free movement of labour" simply means transporting unemployed people from poor countries to provide cheap labour for rich countries. The legitimate discontent over this great historical shift in working class life has been left almost entirely unaddressed, even though it accounts for much of the anti-EU sentiment in the UK and many other member states. That would be a theme worth exploring if we were to have a brave and honest debate about the future that is not bogged down in questions about tariffs and customs checks.

In his Davos speech, President Donald Trump blamed "unaccountable bureaucrats" for the excessive regulation that hampered the US economy. May would do well to take up that fertile theme when she makes her hesitant, appeasing-both-sides statements on Brexit, since it applies in spades to the Brussels operation. But she talks to so few people and does not seem to enjoy frank, open exchanges or disputation, so the proper argument never begins. This absence is particularly striking because, for a generation now, even in less turbulent times, politics has been conducted as a running symposium often led by think tanks and then actively pursued with Cabinet level discourse.

Sadly, it is probably too late now to recover inspiration and intellectual energy. Everybody is too busy getting on with the job.

- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018

Janet Daley is a political columnist and author. Her two novels are All Good Men and Honourable Friends.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 30, 2018
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