The decision of home secretary Sajid Javid to strip former Isis mother Shamima Begum of her British citizenship is evidently motivated by his wish to be seen – along with Theresa May – as tough and proactive amid the chaos and uncertainties of Brexit. The decision is probably illegal, given that Begum does not have a Bangladesh passport, but by the time the case works its way through the courts, the gesture will have served its turn.
The frenzy over the Begum story is partly impelled by the media’s desperation to report something other than Brexit. But taking away Begum’s right to a British passport is only the latest in a series of bizarre gestures by ministers designed to give the impression of a government in control at home and abroad, though the weirdness of its actions suggests one that is rattled and does not know where it is going.
Sending the giant aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to disputed waters off China has a fine “Britain rules the waves” feel to it. Defence minister Gavin Williamson says it is a display of “hard power” and “lethality”. Except we do not rule the waves anywhere much and certainly not in the South China Sea, and to pretend otherwise gives a very large hostage to fortune.
There is even an ominous echo here, which probably passed Williamson by, of a spectacularly ill-judged bit of gesture strategy. Churchill sent the warships Prince of Wales and Repulse to the far east to serve as a “veiled threat” to deter Japanese aggression. Both vessels were promptly sunk by Japanese aircraft and their fate should have served as a warning to any power that bluffs without thinking through what will happen if that bluff is called.
The Chinese were never likely to react militarily to vague threats, but they did cancel trade talks with chancellor Philip Hammond. It was a curious moment to irritate a country with the world’s second largest economy just weeks before a post-Brexit Britain will be looking for new markets.
A few days later, Japan got a taste of Britain’s new ill-timed steeliness with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and international trade secretary Liam Fox causing offence in Tokyo by writing a letter telling the Japanese that “time is of the essence” when it comes to a new Anglo-Japanese trade deal and that both sides should show flexibility. The Japanese reportedly came close to stopping the trade talks in which they are visibly aware of having a stronger hand in dealing with Britain than when it was an EU member.
Anger towards Britain in Beijing and Tokyo will pass away if there are no more provocations, but a peculiar precedent is being set. Britain is already a weaker power because of Brexit and will have to learn the diplomatic language that goes with its new status as a lesser power.
The problem in dealing with China and Japan is similar to that in negotiating with the EU: the Brexiteer programme, in so far as they had one, supposed that the EU needed Britain more than Britain needs the EU, though everything that has happened since 2016 shows the opposite to be case.
The negative impact of dealing with the rest of the world through belligerent but empty gestures is so obvious that it can only be intended to befuddle a domestic audience. “Foreign policy ends at the water’s edge” is a cynical American political saying which means that foreign policy is really always about domestic politics.
Yet even this does not quite explain the sheer ineptitude of the government’s attempts to project strength in all directions. The prime example of this was the £14m contract with Seaborne Freight to provide ships to carry cargo between Ramsgate and Ostend in the event of a no-deal Brexit, despite the fact that the company had no ships or experience of operating them. The contract has now been cancelled after an Irish company backing it pulled out. Nevertheless, the hiring of the ghost ferry ships was extraordinary, even by the horrendous track record of transport secretary Chris Grayling.
The exceptional level of incompetence at the top of government catches one by surprise because every cabinet in history has been accused by opponents of unexampled stupidity. Deriding such failings has been so much the province of pub bores that sensible people switch off when they hear it. But Theresa May’s cabinet seems to surpass all its predecessors in the extent of the gap between what is said and what is done.
This may be explained by the chasm between what Brexit was supposed to deliver and what it will be, a gap that can only be bridged by wishful thinking or outright lies.
The personality of Theresa May must have a lot to do with this. I first noticed the disconnect between her words and deeds when, as Home Secretary, she was making sympathetic and intelligent speeches about mental illness. She went on doing so after she moved to Downing Street, but the number of hospital beds for those suffering from severe psychosis kept on shrinking and patients were increasingly transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles from their families who were their main support.
There were 5,800 deaths by suicide in the UK in the last year for which figures are available, making it the leading form of death for young people between 18 and 34. And how did May respond to these grim figures? Unsurprisingly, for those who had come to know her style, she made the useless gestures by appointing a minister for suicide prevention.
Some have interpreted the current crisis as a failure of the British political class as a whole. I am wary of this argument because it spreads the blame for disastrous policies too widely, which is highly convenient for the much smaller group who are really responsible. I remember a Japanese prime minister getting good marks for repentance in 2012 for saying the whole Japanese establishment was responsible for the Fukushima disaster, his audience failing to note that this let individuals off the hook apart from sharing in the general guilt.
The problem is perhaps less with pro-Brexit politicians than with the press that has sold a fantasy picture of Britain to half the population who are convinced that their country is far more important than it is. Travelling around Britain in the last few weeks, I have been struck by the conviction of Leave voters that the Germans will always want to sell their cars here and the French will want to sell their cheese to them whatever happens. People are deaf to the idea that the balance of power is very much against them.
Fortunately, it turns out that the real threat to Britain is Shamima Begum and her infant baby and that, at least, the government knows how to deal with.