Hard Brexiteers are now crying ‘Project Fear’ – this is what Theresa May should do about it

The prime minister’s Brexit blueprint is being defined by her opponents, both at home and in Brussels. It’s time she explained a few things

Theresa May says she's had 'constructive responses' so far from the EU on the UK's brexit proposals

You just can’t please the Eurosceptics. After months of urging the government to spell out its preparations for a no-deal Brexit, they are crying “Project Fear 2.0” now that ministers do just that.

They smell a rat, suspecting Theresa May of ramping up contingency plans in order to persuade MPs in all parties to hold their nose and vote for the only other show in town – her deal (if she gets one with the EU, that is).

May wants to frame the choice as between the chaos of a cliff-edge departure next March, without the planned transitional phase lasting to December 2020, and the relative stability of her deal.

Downing Street hopes that more of the businesses increasingly worried about a no-deal exit, will go public, as Airbus, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Unipart have already done.

No-deal preparations are also in May’s interests because they potentially put pressure on the EU to give ground in the negotiations. I say potentially, because it’s an open secret that the government has left such planning very late; Brussels doubts the UK can be ready by March.

There’s talk in Whitehall of falling short, even though Dominic Raab, the energetic new Brexit secretary, is putting booster rockets under the preparations.

As parliament begins its six-week break today, May needs more than scare stories about stockpiling food and medicine to fill the summer news vacuum. She desperately needs a clear, succinct and positive message to “sell” her Brexit strategy to voters, MPs and her party.

The plan, agreed at the cabinet’s Chequers summit, is unloved by Tory Europhobes, Europhiles, opposition parties and, according to the opinion polls, the public.

May’s aides fret that attacks on it by Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and David Davis will hit home among Tory supporters; two-thirds of those who voted Tory at last year’s general election backed Leave in the 2016 referendum.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Chequers plan, at least May now has one. But she is a lousy communicator, as was shown when she fielded questions from workers at a Newcastle engineering firm on Monday. Ultra-cautious as usual, she did not really explain her proposed deal.

After her uncomfortable election campaign, May told aides she wanted to get out more from Westminster and meet ordinary people. More than a year on, Monday was her first question-and-answer session with the public since the election, when she memorably told a nurse who hadn't had a pay rise for eight years there was “no magic money tree”.

Like many politicians, May speaks in Westminster code. As a sad Brexit anorak, I could bore for Britain about the differences between May’s speeches at Lancaster House, Florence and Mansion House. But most real people don’t know what she’s talking about when she references them.

Now we have another one: “Chequers” – not the Chequers plan, just Chequers. It’s utterly meaningless to voters. It reminds me of when the Liberal Democrats used to bang on about Paddy Ashdown’s “Chard speech”, as if the whole world knew what it was. I had a vision of a bemused voter wondering whether Paddy never made the speech because the only draft was destroyed in a fire.

May must explain her blueprint because it is being defined by her opponents – both at home and in Brussels. Perhaps she should copy her friend Donald Trump by taking to Twitter.

Here’s “Chequers” in 140 characters: “My plan: current rules on goods, so firms can export to EU. We diverge on services, 80 per cent of economy. Trade deals round world. Only way to avoid no-deal chaos, hard Irish border.”

Instead, May’s Twitter account normally includes banalities such as: “I’ve had a great day hosting a Cabinet meeting @Sage_Gateshead, touring @ReeceGroup and talking to their staff about our plan to help the North East succeed.” Yawn.

While May did not commit news in Newcastle (a missed opportunity), Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, grabbed headlines by tweeting that Vladimir Putin would be the “only person rejoicing” from a no-deal Brexit. That's how to do it.

May could even emulate Jeremy Corbyn, who knows how to bypass a largely hostile media. When Corbyn does a wide-ranging, wrap-up attack at Prime Minister’s Questions, you know he’s on his sixth and final question. The soundbite is neatly packaged for social media.

He might be criticised for preaching to the already converted, but it helps Corbyn protect his base. May could do with some of that, ahead of what looks to be a nightmarish autumn.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in