Reports leading up to today’s speech were mixed. On one hand, Chris Grayling said that “the prime minister will recognise in the speech today that it is not about cherry picking, that we can’t have everything that we might like to have because we are leaving.” This seemed to suggest more realism, which was to be welcomed (if present) as compared to previous announcements from cabinet ministers on the topic. On the other hand, briefed beforehand were May’s five brand new “red lines”, which to summarise were:
- Brexit means Brexit. We’re leaving everything.
- Whatever agreement reached between the EU and the UK must be robust enough to endure
- People’s jobs and security must be protected
- Global Britain, here we come
- The Union must preserve
This sounds a lot like the old, “Brexit is just all glory and will contain no downsides or even choices” rhetoric we’re well used to already. Worth pointing out here that more than a couple of the five “red lines” are incompatible, and I could go as far as to say mutually exclusive. So, in the end, which was it? Reality dawning at No 10 or more waffle?
This is a bit petty, I know, but why is a theme of all Theresa May speeches on Brexit this: hold it in a beautiful building, the view of which is completely negated by some cheesy backdrop you’ve set up in back of her? Anyhow, sorry, had to get that off my chest.
First the positives. She admitted that Brexit will mean less access to the Single Market by definition if we leave the SM and the CU. “Frictionless” trade with the EU has become “frictionless as possible”. This is bloody obvious, of course, but it hasn’t been said before in the sunny uplands scenarios being offered. May rejected the idea that the Irish border is simply the EU’s problem. In the midst of the talking down of the Good Friday Agreement of late from some Brexiteers, this is welcome.
After that? My ability to praise gets thin. The admittance that we will need some form of a customs arrangement with the EU is welcome – but comes at least a year too late. The stuff May talked about (leaving aside the silly guff about robots) might have been the basis of a discussion had it started in early 2017. This should have been in the Lancaster House speech, in other words, as should most of the substance here. May rightly notes that in order to have any chance of negotiating the items she’s talking about, goodwill has to exist on both sides. Yet the plan in early 2017 was “crush the saboteurs” – go in hard and snarky with the view to dividing the EU27. It not only hasn’t worked, but burned through any goodwill that might have existed to discuss the sorts of scenarios she laid out today. Also, more importantly, the time trying to convince the Commission to think about those ideas and how they wouldn’t disrupt the rules of the Single Market has been lost as well.
As usual, there were glaring paradoxes present. The UK will take back total control of all law, with arbitration related to EU laws taking place solely in UK courts – yet she also admits there will need to be an external means of arbitration between the UK and EEA (which won’t be the ECJ). It can’t be both of these things at the same time. May rightly points out that every free trade deal is unique in some way – yet references to the Canada, South Korea and Ukraine arrangements demonstrate that even she sees that something has to form the basis for the eventual deal. Yes, the UK shouldn’t take Canadian access for Norwegian obligations, as May pointed out – but the balance of obligations and access will obviously exist by definition. May gave no real idea of how they will be genuinely balanced out today in any meaningful sense.
This would have been a decent enough speech had May given it in January 2017. Not ideal in many senses still, but decent enough for that moment in time. Coming in March 2018, with a year to go before the Article 50 period expires and about six months before the basis of a deal needs to be agreed between the UK and the EU, this is still nowhere close to where the prime minister of Great Britain needs to be. The real choice is still between staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union, going for the softest Brexit imaginable, or going full on hard Brexit, out of everything. The idea that some sort of wonderful bespoke thing is on offer is a fantasy the self-declared straight talking PM is still peddling.