“Brexit means Brexit” always has been a puzzle to me until now. At last the devalued penny has dropped. Theresa May is falling back on that old stand-by: “Because I say so.”
Now it may be unfair and gender stereotypical to characterise a woman politician as sounding like a bossy parent, but I will live with that because she does. In the same way that a stressed-out mother might fall back on that old formulation, what Mrs May is saying is: “Oh, please shut up and let the grown-ups get on with the job.”
Brexit means Brexit is just another way of telling the children to stop going on about things.
When Mrs May became prime minister, she got the job because she was the last sensible Tory standing. The other candidates had disgraced themselves by stabbing each other in the back or due to the unbearable burden of being Andrea Leadsom.
On Tuesday, Mrs May’s reputation as the sensible one took a serious knock thanks to revelations in the Guardian that she had told a meeting of Goldman Sachs bankers in private a month before the referendum that there were great dangers in leaving Europe.
As the former Home Secretary said almost nothing about those risks in public – and was criticised by Tory Remainers for her silence – this revelation is embarrassing for her. And well done to the Guardian for bringing the matter up.
Here is part of what Mrs May said to the bankers who were privileged to hear her express an opinion on staying or going (something denied those of us who were not rich bankers at the time): “If we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say, do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence rather than a UK presence? So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms.”
The tenor of her speech was all in line with remaining in Europe, yet she uttered hardly a peep in public, much to the reported frustration of David Cameron. A man sitting on a ledge can only speculate, but is it reasonable to wonder if her reticence on saying anything about Europe was a tactic? She kept her head down to improve her chances of becoming prime minister if the yes vote won.
That was just what did happen, and Mrs May stayed upright after all the other Tory leadership skittles had tumbled. So, what does the prime minister think about Brexit? She probably thinks Cameron left her a stinker of a bequest in his political will.
Faced with this difficulty, she decided click her kitten heels and utter those now infamous words: “Brexit means Brexit.” But if she didn’t believe that before she nipped into Number Ten while no one was paying proper attention, why should we believe what she says now?
This matters for many reasons connected to the future of our country – dear me, almost sounding like a politician there – and it matters because the Leave vote seems to be changing Britain in ways that many of us don’t welcome.
The referendum was a simple yes/no vote on whether to remain in Europe. Many other issues became wrapped up in the pre-vote quarrels and slanging matches, but “yes or no” was all we were being asked.
As prime minister, Mrs May has seemed eager to pursue a hard Brexit stance, and has been much keener to talk about cutting immigration rather than staying in the single market. Beyond that, her plans for taking the UK out of the EU remain a mystery wrapped up in her favourite nonsense saying.
Now we are no nearer to understanding what Brexit means than we were when she first uttered those words. But at least we do know that when Mrs May says what she means, she might not mean it at all. Does she believe what she says now or what she said then?