Oh, come on, who hasn’t done it? Forgotten our significant other’s… well, not birthday exactly. Nope, not anniversary either. More like their entire nationality.
Jeremy Hunt, the new foreign secretary, did his bit for diplomacy this week by going to China and earnestly suggesting that he feels a special bond with China because his wife is… Japanese. This would have been slightly awkward even if she was Japanese, given there’s some longstanding distrust between the two Asian nations; but, unfortunately, she’s actually Chinese, which was presumably the whole point of mentioning her in the first place.
And, on one level, so what? It’s the sort of trivial slip we’d normally just laugh off as a sign that it’s July, and everyone needs a holiday.
But when a political party reaches the stage where it can’t do right for doing wrong, even ridiculously trivial things – like eating a bacon sandwich slightly awkwardly, à la Ed Miliband, or tripping over your words when you’re as jet-lagged as Jeremy Hunt probably is right now – start being treated as if they hold some deep hidden meaning. And Theresa May’s government is dangerously close to that zone now. They no longer get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to competence and that is what’s changing the game around Brexit.
May has done what Leavers have long been arguing she should do, and let her new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, spell out more explicitly how the government is prepping for the fallout if we don’t reach any sort of agreement with the EU by next March (aka the famous “no deal” scenario). And, like a lot of things Leavers want, it’s turned out to be a spectacular own goal.
When voters still thought of Theresa May as a competent person doing a reasonable job, many were happy to let her get on with Brexit. They don’t think that any more
Suddenly, we’re all talking not about the boring technical details of future customs arrangements but about stuff everyone can understand: contingency plans for stockpiling tinned food and medicine in case the chaos is such that we literally can’t get life-saving essentials into Britain. Bear in mind that, last summer, some people reported KFC to the police when the fast-food giant briefly ran out of chicken, and you get a rough idea of how we’d deal with empty supermarket shelves.
Unsurprisingly, plans to outline even more exciting plans for coping with “no deal” have been hastily shelved – any more of this, and we’d all be building air-raid shelters in our back gardens and digging up parks to grow potatoes – but it may be too late to undo the damage.
We’ve now had two opinion polls in a row showing support for a second public vote on the final Brexit deal, and it’s not a coincidence that the second (taken for Sky News) found barely one in 10 Britons think the negotiations are going well. When voters still thought of May as a competent person doing a reasonable job, many were happy to let her get on with Brexit. They don’t think that any more, and that’s not just because of the drama surrounding a Chequers deal that 99% of us haven’t actually read. It’s because we’ve gone – in two years – from talking about how Brexit will make Britain great again to arguing over whether there will be what Raab calls “adequate food” after March.
That’s not the same, of course, as saying Britain is ready to ditch Brexit. It’s Leave voters who are most likely to have been spooked by recent events, because, unlike Remainers, they actually expected it to be a success. Some may well want a second vote purely so that they can vote for the uber-hard Brexit that seems to have been abandoned at Chequers, rather than because they’ve changed their minds. But that said, all those who used to bang on about the “will of the people” being perfectly clear have gone pretty quiet all of a sudden.
Brexit ministers can protest until they’re blue in the face that none of this apocalyptic stuff is going to happen in real life, that the whole point of prepping is just to ensure it doesn’t. But voters will only believe that if they believe in the government’s basic ability to deal with whatever life throws at it; if they look at senior ministers (or failing that, the government in waiting, which is the Labour party) and think these people can pretty much be trusted to get on with the job. And if they can’t? Well, don’t be surprised if voters ultimately want to take back control.