Theresa May has a reputation for being evasive. So evasive, in fact, that psychologist Peter Bull, who studies the art of the non-answer, describes the British prime minister’s approach as being in a category all its own: the “non-specific answer to a specific question.”
Today (March 20), just over nine days before the UK is due to leave the EU, May sent a letter asking for a three-month extension. The British parliament needs more time to decide what sort of transitional agreement it wants after Brexit becomes official. May negotiated a divorce deal with the EU last year and twice failed to get her parliament to agree to it. She told the EU she needed the extension to convince MPs to approve it on the third time of asking.
The British public had a specific question: Are you serious? May’s answer, in a hastily arranged national address this evening, was curt and classically non-specific.
“It is high time we made a decision. I passionately hope MPs will find a way to back the deal I negotiated with the EU,” May said. “So far, parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice,” May said. (Although technically it has done so, by twice rejecting her deal.)
May then repeated much of what she had already told parliament that day: that she had requested a delay to the Brexit deadline until June 30 and that it was time for MPs for coalesce around her deal. (The EU said it would agree to a short delay if parliament agreed on May’s withdrawal agreement, but did not specify what would happen if it didn’t.)
May ruled out asking for a longer extension, but she had previously ruled out not “delivering” Brexit by the original deadline of March 29. She called the delay a “matter of great personal regret.” Distancing herself from the majority of MPs she technically commands in parliament, she told the British public, “I am on your side.”
So what happens now? There was nothing new in her statement: no update from her talks with the EU or her meetings with MPs, no plans for alternative scenarios, or even her resignation.
Public opinion, normally so divided on all things Brexit, united in frustration at a prime-time interruption to announce, well, nothing much.
In his research analyzing May’s communication style, Bull found that her “distinctive equivocation style was essentially covert, characterized primarily by ignoring questions, modifying questions, stating or implying that she had already answered questions, and acknowledging questions without answering them.”
May’s approach risks driving voters already disillusioned by politics even further into despair. “Equivocation is politically important if it infuriates the public, and potentially turns them off politics,” Bull wrote recently. “Equivocation is also important because of its potential to undermine political accountability.”
How much longer can she keep this up?