Speaking to politicians and other government insiders about what happens next, the most worrying responses aren’t from those who admit they don’t know. It’s the ones who ask in return: “What do you think?”
Having been cursed to live in interesting times, it’s an unhappy coincidence that we also live in an age of the inscrutable leader. Big decisions loom, not for the next generation but in the next month: Will there really be a no-deal Brexit? Is there any chance of a second EU referendum? And what about one on Scottish independence? Uncertainty clouds all of these issues, because the people in charge simply won’t say with any clarity what they think should happen.
Some of the early bravado has fallen away, but Theresa May insists the UK is going to leave the EU on 29 March – whether or not there’s a Brexit deal and the necessary legislation is in place.
Half her Cabinet and her top Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, are reported to believe this is nonsense. And so the question continues to be asked: “Will she really lead the UK over a cliff?” Some say it would be against her nature, but others worry that May’s loyalty to the Conservative Party outweighs her pragmatism. However, because in public remarks she rarely emerges from behind the boilerplate, we just don’t know.
Likewise, Nicola Sturgeon wants another shot at independence. An announcement about when and under what circumstances is coming and, in fairness to the First Minister, Brexit is a big factor in those decisions. But in appealing to both the SNP faithful and a worried nation, she has kept the public guessing about her true intentions, and how soon there could be fresh constitutional upheaval.
Jeremy Corbyn’s euroscepticism was never a secret, but to keep a divided party together, he tried to paper over it with a commitment to keep a second EU referendum on the table. It’s a cruel irony for those that believed him that videos of Corbyn bitterly opposing the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty emerged just as it became clear a so-called People’s Vote wasn’t going to happen.
In what feels like a package deal with Putin’s Cold War routine, Kremlinology is back. Our leaders don’t care to tell us what they really think, so we’re forced to guess. Sometimes the ebb and flow of internal party debate – the strength of the adjectives in this address, or the striking out of a phrase from that statement – is worth recording. But there’s a futility to a lot of Brexit-related reporting in that it tells us nothing new, only reminds us of what we should already know: that no one knows where the UK is going.
It doesn’t help that despite communication being a big (the biggest?) part of leadership, no modern combination of Prime Minister and leader of the opposition have found the media so alien. Sturgeon, at least, is a chat show host compared to her political rivals – and to many in her own party.
This is a problem, not just in terms of the actual decisions needing to be taken, but for political culture as a whole. Part of the reason supposed ‘plain talkers’ like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are popular is the perception of a vacillating, triangulating political elite sitting on the fence. Getting big decisions right takes time and space for informed debate, with lots of troublesome facts and experts. The people in the driving seat still need to give the impression of holding the wheel and choosing a general direction.
The ambiguity leaves open the worrying and plausible case that our leaders aren’t just keeping their cunning plans secret – they simply don’t have a clue what to do. In that case, the public often get asked to take responsibility – “What do you think?” But that’s where our troubles began.