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Can May pull off her great Brexit gamble?

Team Brexit: From left, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Philip Hammond - Credit: Archant

Theresa May’s version of Brexit is the opposite of what she and her allies were seeking just a few months ago

Optimism in politics is always an attractive quality and Theresa (‘certainty and clarity’) May’s exposition of her goals for Britain’s EU Brexit negotiation displayed a well-crafted example of that quality in the gilded splendour of Lancaster House. But optimism and wholesome intention are never enough, they risk being mistaken for wishful thinking. As one veteran Tory Euro-sceptic put it 24 hours before the prime minister spoke: ‘We now know what Theresa wants. The real question is, ‘can she get it?”

Quite so. As with the post-Brexit economy and wider society, there are grounds for optimism and for pessimism. Optimism of the will is better, provided its feet are firmly planted on the ground.

After selective weekend briefing of May’s speech sent sterling south, its overall positive tone pushed it back up against both the dollar and the euro as she (no more ‘Mrs Maybe’ jibes?) addressed assembled, sombre diplomats.

They listened more respectfully than noisy MPs would have done, if she had dared make the speech in the Commons, though it is a scandal that Speaker Bercow did not insist she made a formal statement. Isn’t that what ‘parliamentary sovereignty means’? Weekly PMQs is not enough and nor is fielding David Davis as a Commons substitute, not even for Tuesday’s two hour grilling, or a vote in both houses on the final package.

Key players in the major capitals of Europe offered a mixed response. Most were sensibly more guarded than that of former Belgian PM, now the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, who warned against the ‘illusion’ that Britain could cherry pick the customs union and single market. Tiny Malta said the UK’s deal must be ‘inferior’ to the status quo, while the EU Council president, Poland’s Donald Tusk, welcomed May’s more ‘realistic’ tone. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, Brussels top own goal scorer, was quite restrained. As for chief Brexit negotiator, French tough guy, Michel Barnier (the ‘sexiest politician alive’ according to Glamour magazine) he reminded Whitehall that the formal divorce must precede any partnership agreement. Barnier spoke just days after denying (not very convincingly) a Guardian report that he privately accepts the EU will need a ‘special relationship’ with the City of London to avoid financial disorder.

Is he right about the way divorce negotiations work?

Everyone knows that the best divorces avoid recrimination and blame or both parties and their children suffer. French tabloids are speculating this week that Barnier has finally married his long-time girl friend. He may have hard-won experience of these things. But good intentions on both sides are not enough, certainly not in a year when three important EU states – Germany, France and the Netherlands – face nationalist challenges at the polls.

Europe’s muted response may also reflect May’s constructive tone (‘it is in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed’) rather than her warning that a bad deal or no deal, especially one resulting from a ‘punitive’ negotiating stance, would cause ‘calamitous self harm’. That passage did not go down well, though it contains some truth.

More likely, EU leaders were still in shock from the casually unsettling comments made about Europe, NATO and Germany – especially Germany – by Donald Trump. He did so in that pre-inauguration interview with Michael Gove of The Times and Kai Diekmann of the German newspaper, Bild. As a close ally of CDU politicians, Diekmann may have found Trump’s treatment of Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel as equally trustworthy partners (or not) a bigger shock than encouraging remarks about trade deals with post-Brexit Britain were gratifying to cub reporter, Gove.

How much can anyone depend on Trump’s words (‘mere words’ as a Tory cabinet minister once told his party conference), that will be the No 1 question for struggling world leaders in 2017.

In Davos, China’s President Xi – whose presence is itself a sign of fast changing times – warns against Trump-style protectionism. Again optimism is the more sensible instinct, as the world adjusts to new realities that include government by Twitter. One commentator likens Trump’s stream of often self-contradictory consciousness to a saloon bar pundit. An expert analyst of rhetoric down the centuries, Sam Leith says Trump’s limited working vocabulary, ungrammatical, illogical and often untrue, is pitched at the comprehension of a nine-year-old, but that it also works very well.

Sounding ‘unpresidential’, by the strangled standards of mainstream politics, is what many voters like about him and other populists. There ought to be a prize for the writer who first urged pundits to do what Trump voters do: take him ‘seriously, but not literally’ – instead of the other way around.

Putting gut feeling above reason is new territory for error-prone liberal elites, as conservative commentators gleefully point out, even though the more fastidious of them were scornfully dismissive of Trump too only weeks ago. So, on Twitter, were May aides like Nick Timothy, now crawling on hot coals to Trump Tower, but not yet allowed upstairs. We see such frantic trimming in all directions. Even the Bank of England’s Mark Carney no longer says that Brexit is the chief cause of concern for the UK economy, a very different tale from last spring.

What May’s Lancaster House speech confirmed is that our six-month prime minister is no populist (offering glib, painless ‘the road ahead will be uncertain’) solutions. Nor is she another Margaret Thatcher, no ideologue or evangelist, whatever the excited midweek headlines in the nostalgic Tory press (‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’) proclaimed. In any case, Thatcher, even in her prime, was privately a much more cautious politician than her myth suggests.

May spoke on the very spot where her predecessor-but-four once extolled the virtues of the same single market she now plans to leave.

Nor did Thatcher become an outright Brexiteer in old age, though some of her intimates insist she did, in private.

What May clearly emerges as in this speech is a small ‘c’ Middle England conservative of moderate and inclusive instincts, a larger than life version of Dorothea Brooke, George Elliott’s heroine in Middlemarch; Dorothea with an Oxford education and a firm conviction (Thatcher thought so too) that women are not equal to men, they are the superior sex. May lacks the ego of a Trump, Thatcher or, closer to home, of her Three Brexiteer ministers, Johnson, Davis and Fox. Unstable lieutenants, prone to dramatic gesture and resignation, they can easily be outmanoeuvred or cowed, she must have calculated. So far so good for the woman who outsmarted them to win the Tory crown by stealth.

In her low key chancellor, Philip Hammond, May has a natural ally. His remarks in Berlin about Britain seeking an alternative trade model if the EU negotiators cut up rough are more in tune with May’s thinking than was said at the time. Fox has gone to earth, Davis is as cocky as ever, but clearly on a steep and sobering learning curve. Johnson blithely talks of foreigners, led by his fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, ‘queuing up’ to do post-Brexit trade deals.

He chides Francois Hollande with tactless prisoner-of-war Great Escape analogies. As with Trump, for Boris words are chiefly a means of escape from inconvenient realities.

Growing in confidence, May is grounded in the Home Counties vicarage of her youth. When she says she wants to use the Brexit trauma to make Britain ‘stronger, fairer, more united and more outward looking’, she may be naively hopeful for change beyond her political capacity or budget. ‘Outward looking’ is not what motivated Brexit voters fearful of painful change, ‘fairness’ is not what drives those who fantasise about creating a North Atlantic Singapore or Hong Kong. But only the very partisan or mean-spirited can doubt she sort-of means it.

Thus, May also seems aware of the urgent need to forge a domestic consensus around her stance, one many on both Leave and Remain sides share – but not all – as some Remain realists come to accept that Brexit may not be quite as unthinkable as they feared.

That goal highlights the scale of the challenge ahead, even before she formally triggers Article 50 (subject to whatever stipulation the Supreme Court makes) and embarks on formal talks with Barnier and Co.

As currently configured, Labour does not pose much of a threat to her domestic base, its energies inwardly focussed on two dangerous byelections in Copeland and Stoke Central (both triggered by anti-Corbyn despair). Nor yet do the recovering Lib Dems. In Stoke, UKIP must be in with a chance, especially if party leader Paul Nuttall dares stand, unencumbered by Nigel Farage who is busy cashing in his celebrity chips as a radio host and Friend of Trump. Trying to float his insurance business on the AIM stock market, Farage banker, Arron Banks, seems to have a similar idea.

Far more serious for a PM committed to ‘preserving our precious Union’ is the situation now emerging in Northern Ireland, where the divisive mechanism of fresh assembly elections loom, pitting the pro-Brexit DUP against the lately pro-EU Sinn Fein. As for the post-Brexit border issue with the Republic, May’s speech underlined by default that it is beyond easy resolution.

And Scotland’s renewed threat to demand another independence referendum if Britain leaves the single market (and customs union) as May proposes? Canny first minister Nicola Sturgeon overplayed her hand after the June 23 result and has been stepping gently back from the cliff edge ever since. There has been no sign of the SNP’s predicted pro-independence surge among Scots voters since the Brexit and many SNP voters are pro-Brexit too. Not since Mary, Queen of Scots, the last woman to rule in Edinburgh, played cat and mouse with her cousin, Elizabeth, in the 1560s, has so much been at stake for the union which the two queens’ deaths eventually brought about.

May emerges from the week in tactical command of her party, the right satisfied by Hard Brexit rhetoric, the left mollified by talk of compromise and internationalism. How long can it last when so much is beyond her control: Europe’s response, economic instability, bombs and refugees, Putin’s opportunism and (so the CIA and MI6 tell us) election-fixing adventures, above all the challenge of Trump’s epoch-shaking presidency, for which there is neither certainty nor clarity in sight. Even the new president’s promise of trade deals and affection must make the hardiest business tycoon feel a little like Red Riding Hood.

But hardened by six years of daily dealings with immigration and the EU’s court system, the former home secretary has chosen to interpret the electorate’s narrow 52:48% mandate as placing border control over access to the single market access and customs union passporting – quite contrary to what she and allies said just a few months ago. If all goes well, things may turn out well. For a small c conservative from rural Oxfordshire, it is a big gamble all the same.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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