Her Brexit speech at Lancaster House was lacklustreby John McTernan / January 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
May outlines the government’s Brexit plan in her Lancaster House speech on 17th January, 2017 ©Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images The five most frequently used words in Theresa May’s Lancaster House Brexit speech yesterday were, in order, “Britain,” “Europe,” “EU,” “trade” and “want.” And it is the verb “want” that is doing all the heavy lifting. The fundamental flaw in May’s plan for a “global Britain” is that she breaks one of the iron laws of politics—do not believe in what you hope for. This was in no sense a plan, it was a wish list plain and simple. There is a straightforward test as to whether political language is banal boilerplate—can you imagine someone arguing the opposite of what a politician proudly proclaims? Take the “Objectives and Ambitions” section of the Prime Minister’s speech. Would anyone ever argue: “So today I want to outline our objectives for the negotiation ahead. 12 objectives that amount to one big goal: a stale, negative and destructive partnership between Britain and the European Union. And as we negotiate that partnership, we will be driven by some simple principles: we will provide as much uncertainty and obscurity as we can at every stage. And we will take this opportunity to make Britain weaker, to make Britain more unfair, and to build a more Parochial Britain too.” Of course not. And so it went on, with the PM setting out her twelve objectives. But the purpose of May’s speech is clear: Britain will seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge when we leave the EU, and the government will do everything it can to phase in the new arrangements as Britain and the EU move towards a new partnership. The twelve objectives really are a mixed bag, combining aspirations about process with items which vary from the extraordinarily precise: the Common Travel Area with Ireland, to the Trumpianly vague: the commitment to new trade deals over which hovers the word “Yuuuge!” And even on the surface they are contradictory when taken together—they cannot all be combined. There will inevitably be trade-offs – which is, after all, one of the core concerns of all politics. The Prime Minister herself admitted it in the opening section of her speech: “We are about to enter a negotiation. That means there will be give and take. There will have to be compromises. It will require imagination on both sides.” But then pointedly added: “And not everybody will be able to know everything at every stage.” This was something she came back to later in the speech when she marked the media’s card: “However frustrating some people find it, the government will not be pressured into saying more than I believe it is in our national interest to say.” But she was doing more than that—she was making it clear to the country that she has no intention of explaining the trade-offs which might be involved in Brexit, the costs of competing options and the metrics for judging which are preferable. This speech was not made as a statement to parliament, so the Prime Minister avoided the scrutiny of her peers. Nor was it the precursor to the publication of a White Paper—because that would require detail of options and implications of choices. The vote at the end of Brexit negotiations, which has been promised to the Commons and the Lords, will be a “take it or leave it” one. Why? Because the sting in the tail of the speech was in the final section when May, accidentally smuggling in a double meaning, warned the EU that “no deal” was preferable to a “bad one.” “We would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the polices that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. If we were excluded from the Single Market we would be free to change the basis for the UK’s economic model.” Or as a foreign journalist put it in the very brief Q&A session after the speech—if the UK doesn’t get the deal it wants then it will become a tax haven. Which sets the “principles” and the “objectives” in a very different, indeed a disposable, light. The biggest trade-off of all, threatening to change the entire economic and social model of the UK, and the voters do not get a say. A vision of Britain’s future as a turbocharged entrepôt, slipped out in the guise of a negotiating tactic. It is a savage irony that a speech celebrated by supportive commentators and newspapers as echoing Margaret Thatcher simultaneously rejects one of Thatcher’s greatest achievements—the European single market—and at the same time promotes the prospect of a low tax, deregulated UK that Thatcher’s sure conservative instincts would have rejected. On the 17th of January, Prospect hosted a roundtable discussion with the contributors to: Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. This report is designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. The discussion was chaired by Tom Clark, Editor of Prospect. Participants included Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, Miriam González and Vicky Pryce. 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