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Theresa May’s answerless answers

Theresa May’s answerless answers

Futile to expect the prime minister to explain her plans

by Thomas Kielinger in London

Thu 12 Jan 2017

Theresa May is reportedly fond of Elizabeth I, the great Tudor queen. You may remember that Good Queen Bess was notorious for her indecisiveness and frequent changes of mind. That drove her chief minister, Lord Burghley, to despair. More than once he threatened to resign, frustrated by his employer's divine fickleness.

I am reminded of Elizabeth as I follow the Brexit debate and May’s uncertain trumpet as to what exactly she stands for beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Observers still do not know, for example, if this includes actual membership in the single market or just access to it. Does she imbibe the danger to the universities if the catchment of students and post-graduates from Europe begins to dry up, not to mention the money they bring in to the institutions of higher learning?

On 24 November 1586 a delegation of her councillors visited Elizabeth, who continued to dodge the issue of what to do with the guilty verdict against Mary, Queen of Scots. She was being urged to decide on the warrant of execution and sign it. ‘I am not so void of judgement as not to see myne owne peril,’ she averred, before plunging into a vexatious series of contradictions, culminating in her famous conclusion: ‘Your judgement I condemn not, neither do I mistake your reasons, but pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless.’

‘My answer, answerless’ – that exactly is the Tudor queen’s and May’s conundrum. Both are confronted with a nagging question to which two answers are perfectly credible. In the case of the Queen of Scots the royal advisers advocated the statutory response to high treason, whereas Elizabeth, convinced of the God-like nature of monarchs, did not think she had a right to end the life of her divinely consecrated cousin.

As for June 2016’s UK-EU referendum, a credible case could be made for either outcome – In or Out. I happen to think that Boris Johnson’s much maligned switch from Remain to Leave was less a deceit by a crafty dissembler but rather an expression of a critical mind who had argued with himself about the validity of both options. Asked to commit, his first reaction was probably to ‘answer answerless’, to himself as much as to others.

The same can be said about May. During the referendum campaign we heard no ringing endorsement of Brexit, hard or otherwise, from the then home secretary. She kept her judgement concealed, except when demanding a solution to high immigration. But if someone had demanded an answer of exactly where she stood, May too would have, in all likelihood, responded in the mode of Elizabeth.

There lies the rub. The road to Brexit is paved with doubt. I have great respect for the conundrum of May who, as prime minister, has to embrace a course of history which originally she was obviously not madly in love with. It is futile to expect her to explain where she stands on the issue of the single market, among other questions. She doesn’t stand – she wobbles. Her mind is necessarily muddled or, to put it in Latin, in statu nascendi as to what her ultimate decision will be. Increased political uncertainty in Europe in 2017 can only muddy the waters further.

It is too bad that Sir Ivan Rogers, who served as the UK ambassador to the European Union before resigning on 3 January citing conflicts with the government, didn’t take May’s predicament into greater consideration. Rogers came from a different angle, that of a civil servant requiring clear answers that he didn’t get. His frustration resembles that of the likes of Burghley and numerous other advisers who have suffered, and will continue to suffer, the maddening reality of answerless answers.

Thomas Kielinger is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board and long-time London correspondent of the German national daily Die Welt. He is the author of several books on British history and politics.

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