Dr Peter Hayes is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sunderland. Here, in an opinion piece, he gives his own views on the current predicament of Prime Minister Theresa May.
“The principled opposition of the Conservative Brexiteers that threatens Mrs May’s role as Prime Minister has three elements.
First, the UK must be sovereign. Second, the EU is a malign symbol. Third, the people have a right to be angry if the 2016 referendum result is not honoured.
The irrational potency of these three interlinked positions, explains not just the peril facing Mrs May, but also does much to explain the political mess we are in.
The idea that the UK must be sovereign confuses our formal ability to make our own choices with our substantive power to chart our own destiny. There are 193 sovereign states in the UN, but they cannot simply do as they wish; their future will be largely shaped by the great power blocs, the USA, China and the EU amongst them.
If and when we leave the EU, so will ours. By gaining sovereignty, we will lose power. We have seen this loss of power already in the negotiations: the strong take what they can, the weak accept what they must.
The Brexiteers see the EU in symbolic terms, it is a singular malign entity, a bureaucratic tyrant who can be “divorced” like an abusive spouse, if not decapitated by a quick blow to the head in a “clean Brexit” (their preferred term for the car crash Brexit). But the EU is not a single entity, it is a complex structure, one to which we are thoroughly conjoined. Separation is going to be an arduous and messy business, and the UK as the weaker of the twins, is liable to come out the worst from it.
The presentation of the EU as a singular symbol of everything that people feel is wrong with politics, rather than a complex structure, has been one of the winning arguments of the Brexiteers. It helps explain their success in the 2016 referendum. The referendum was one in which people were treated as a mass, the Brexiteer appeal was made to the lowest common denominator and at the level of emotion.
The result is that some leavers now treat their emotions, not their reason, as the legitimising basis of the vote. This shift from reason to emotion has given power to the childish threat of becoming angry if a second referendum is called. This shameful piece of blackmail is stated proudly and openly as a legitimate argument in and of itself.
The incipient anger of leavers is seen as a virtuous anger, a democratic anger even. In fact, democracy (a) is premised on the idea of decision making by a rational public not an emotive mass, and (b) allows that it is wholly rational and not at all dishonourable to change your mind in the light of new information and new circumstances.
Mrs May, rationally enough, changed course as she has negotiated Brexit. The Withdrawal Agreement she reached, represents the best she could achieve against the powerful structure that is the EU.
Instead of recognising this reality, the Conservative Brexiteers have now cast Mrs May as the symbol – the tyrant to be dispatched by the clean blow – in the vote on Wednesday night.
You cannot change a whole structure by getting rid of a symbol. Whether or not they choose to recognise reality, they will be faced with the same power disparities and difficulties. The EU will continue to be far more powerful than the UK, and its complex economic relationship with us will still be in place, so a no deal Brexit will still have very serious adverse economic consequences.
By throwing a head to the crowd they may assuage, for a time, the virtuous anger they have excited amongst leavers. But by legitimating emotion over rationality in their continued refusal to countenance a second referendum, this anger will come back all the stronger as the reality of the situation hits home.”