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Theresa May’s government came to power offering to recover Britain’s “lost sovereignty” by “taking back control” of its borders, its trade policy, and its judicial system.  Instead, it has lost control of its most valuable asset – its message to the voters.

Last week it emerged that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, had issued a directive to senior officials dated 28 November warning them that the government was planning to beef up inquiries into “a spate of leaks and unauthorised briefings” in the media.

According to The Times the initiative “reflects the sensitivity of No10 over reports of government divisions, with well reported clashes between pro-Brexit ministers such as Liam Fox (with) Philip Hammond, who voted Remain, as well as tensions between Mr Hammond and the Prime Minister”.

Mr Heywood’s missive described the leaks as “corrosive and undermining trust and good government”. Ed Balls, the former Labour minister and more recently the celebrity hero of Strictly Come Dancing, twisted the knife in an interview on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” show on 4 December.

Drawing no doubt on personal experience, he suggested (at 22.28) that such leaks tended to be a bigger problem in governments which lacked a common sense of purpose.

It should surprise nobody that the May administration has lost control of its message. The message has become much more complex. This is a major problem for the Prime Minister and her tiny kitchen cabinet of trusted advisers, dominated by her two chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, whose limited experience and narrow expertise are part of the problem.

By its very nature the Brexit referendum could be distilled into a simple narrative, a binary choice between  “in” or “out”.  The nuances of what choices and compromises “out” might imply, was buried under an avalanche of misleading populist rhetoric.

Governing is different, however. Politics is about trade-offs. The simplicity of the promises made during the referendum campaign, especially by Leave leaders who expected to lose and did not think too hard about the problems of winning, is now colliding with the reality of governing. It is inevitable that at least some Leave supporters will feel betrayed.

This is part of the message from the Richmond by-election. As Nicky Morgan, the Conservative MP who supported Remain, remarked after the election, Brexiteers “have always been the anti-establishment underdogs and now it has flipped…we are the insurgents now”.

Remainers have a simple message: the government is confused and divided about its objectives, uncertain about its tactics, anxious about the implications of the choices it will make, and making a hash of the exit negotiations even before they have started.

It is, no less importantly, also a government led by a prime minister whose personal electoral credibility has yet to be put to the test of a general election. She is a national leader who has never demonstrated that she can appeal to a wider audience than loyalists attending the Conservative Party’s annual conference.

What’s more, she played her cards so close to her chest ahead of the referendum that she is distrusted by Remainers and Brexiteers in her divided party – and her parliamentary majority has just become even slimmer,

Finally, unlike president-elect Donald Trump, who also emerged triumphant as a result of a populist insurgency, Mrs May cannot draw strength from a maturing four-year economic upswing.

On the contrary, the Brexiteers’ narrative will be muddied by deteriorating economic prospects, notably rising inflation, slowing increases in consumers’ income and rising unemployment and slower growth. The Brexit narrative will soon look less like a fairy story and more like a nightmare.

by Stewart Fleming | 06.12.2016


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