Ayesha Hazarika: Theresa May wants a Brexit alibi, not an ally

Prime Minister Theresa May's re-launch turned out to be a damp squib, as all such initiatives do. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May's re-launch turned out to be a damp squib, as all such initiatives do. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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I want to share with you a wee secret about politics. When you have a re-launch, it’s a sign things are going a bit tits up. During the 2010 general election campaign, the day after Gordon Brown’s somewhat unfortunate run in with Mrs Duffy, aka “that bigoted woman”, the Labour Party staged a slightly strained campaign re-launch. It involved many of the then Labour cabinet looking super awkward as they flanked their beleaguered leader and Peter Mandelson who was uttering those immortal words “Let the fightback begin” when suddenly all you could hear was a very loud noise – a car had crashed literally about 20 feet away. And that was one of the highlights.

Re-launches are always tricky. First you get your press team to brief the re-launch into the papers. Bearing in mind the maxim that you’re only having one because things aren’t going so well, this means they have to over-spin the quality and scale of the re-launch to get any positive media coverage about it. This means that when the damn thing happens, it’s always a total damp squib (and not a damp squid which is what I thought for years).

Jeremy Corbyn had series of unsuccessful re-launches in-between him being busy fighting leadership contests and he ended up blossoming in the general election when they just let Jeremy be Jeremy and crack on with what he does best, which is grassroots campaigning. Re-launches are only ever a superficial makeover as opposed to radical surgery.

And we saw that yesterday. Theresa May decided to celebrate her one year anniversary with a re-launch. Yes. It’s all going swimmingly. There were many problems with this. First of all, she shared her big moment with policy wonk and former Blair adviser Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), who was publishing his report into the gig economy and working practices. In fact, he seemed to be in charge; chairing proceedings, taking questions from the audience and generally bossing it. At one point, I thought the re-launch was basically announcing Matthew Taylor as our new acting Prime Minister. Stranger things have happened.

When May spoke, it was thin, vague and tried desperately to loop back to the words she had said on the steps on Downing Street 12 months ago when she said she would govern for the whole of the country and help those who were just about managing to get by.

It didn’t really pass the smell test because everyone saw a leader who was much diminished, who had managed to trash her reputation and who has no authority.

It came as no surprise that the first question from ITN’s political editor Robert Peston was a gag about whether her own experiences had made more sympathetic towards those in insecure work. It wasn’t even that funny – more painful because of the sting of truth. Much of the Taylor review had been about Uber and we all knew this political leader has been given a one-star rating by the public and the journey had been far from strong and stable.

The tragedy is that the issue of insecurity, a lack of basic rights and poverty pay faced by the increasing number of people who work in the gig economy will not really be addressed by Theresa May. She hasn’t the political will or support from her own party to take the big steps needed and her majority is so small that she won’t get whatever policy she comes up with through. She is in power in name but has none in real terms – even with the DUP propping her up.

That’s why this week she (clearly) took my advice from a previous column and reached out to Labour for help. She suddenly took a keen interest in “cross-party ideas” and wants to work with Jeremy Corbyn particularly on Brexit.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love being in the right and people listening to my political advice, but I’m afraid it is too little and too late for Theresa May. Her plea for a grown-up approach to politics was met with the playground equivalent of “nah nah nah nah nah – no way – you smell” from the Labour Party. I think she may have had a better chance if she hadn’t spent the last two months calling Corbyn a loser, pathetic, dangerous and pretty much a terrorist.

I don’t blame Corbyn for declining her offer as it was not done in good faith. She reached out because she is desperate and weak and terrified that Brexit will be hung around her neck – which it will. If she was serious about reaching out, she would invite Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon in for serious talks and not ignore the many proposals they have already made. She would talk to the trade unions about their concerns over workers’ rights instead of making life as difficult as possible for them.

And Labour is wise to remember the heavy price the party paid for partnering up with the Tories and Lib Dems in the Scottish Referendum campaign. Labour ended up getting an electoral punishment which was fuelled by the SNP narrative “look – they’re all the same”.

So, while I urge Corbyn and Labour to think about the national interest on Brexit, he is right to steer well clear of joining forces with Theresa May. She doesn’t want an assistant on Brexit, she wants an alibi.