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Is Theresa May going soft on Brexit?

Is Theresa May going soft on Breggsit? - Credit: Getty Images

MICHAEL WHITE tries to look on the bright side of the fallout from May’s Brexit fudge.

What’s that you say? Donald Trump is coming to Britain in January despite everything he’s done lately to upset us? Don’t we have enough problems, including the Rand Corporation’s treasonable claim that a Hard Brexit could be costing the UK economy £100billion a year – 5% of GDP – by

We do, we do. And now we have to add a global US think tank to the list of saboteurs, enemies of the people, who need to be crushed even before Liam Fox starts negotiating all those free trade agreements about which President Trump is evidently not keen. Oh dear, and it had all been going so well for several days.

When Iain Duncan Smith assured voters on Saturday that the EU had ‘blinked first’ in its 12-hour Brussels negotiations with Team May, I was much encouraged and promised myself a small dry sherry, even though Christmas is still days away. Brussels blinked first because it is desperate for a deal? Whatever you say Iain, as long as you’re happy.

IDS seemed to be happy. Extraordinary. Most of the usual suspects were happy too. Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry were happy – for pretty obvious reasons to which we’ll return – but also Bill Cash and Edward Leigh, who praised Theresa May’s ‘true grit’ in the face of prophecies of doom and gloom. ‘Brexit can and will be done,’ Sir Ed declared during May’s two-hour stint at the Commons dispatch box on Monday.

He even used the word ‘compromise.’ In the same spirit May made a concession to parliamentary arithmetic, acceding to Tory rebels’ insistence that a special select committee must be set up to prevent ministers abusing ‘Henry VIII’ powers arbitrarily to amend repatriated EU regulations without MPs’ consent. This and a change to procedures that allow EU citizens here to claim permanent residence, the mood has lightened, at least for now.

Yet more emollient, the Daily Mail’s splash headline invoked Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands battle cry ‘Rejoice! We’re on Our Way’ after May’s deal. I duly made that breakfast sherry a large one and ignored the Daily Telegraph’s more ambiguous verdict on May’s success, her first since the election disaster of June 8. It put those compromise terms in large print under its banner headline ‘The Price of Freedom’.

All such language is pretty preposterous when the UK’s domestic economic numbers look shakier by the day (inflation above 3%, wage rises at 2%) and the wider world – take your pick – becomes more fragile and uncertain too. But we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

May ended her week more strong and stable than she started it after Monday’s humiliation at the hands of the DUP.

She also survived exposure of a cack-handed plot, an alleged one to assassinate her at the gates of Downing St, as well as some amateur plotting to overthrow her inside the Palace of Westminster. Who is more inept, teenage jihadis or Grant Shapps? It will never become a GCSE exam question, but the correct answer must be that May’s survival into 2018 must be a good thing. As Brussels is all too aware, she is the only Prime Minister we have got.

So is Not-Sir-Paul Dacre, who is still backing her through thick and pretty thin. At 69 this may be Not-Sir-Paul’s last chance to get that elusive knighthood from a PM willing to take the flak. No credible alternative prime minister – sit down, Jeremy – has yet hoved into view. Worse for plotters, if David Davis was ever a serious candidate, he obligingly shot his other foot off mid-week over those 58 sectoral assessments-that-never-were: a rare example of a Brexit bulldog eating his own homework.

Whether Theresa May reaches the safety of Christmas in such (relatively) good shape depends on the EU’s Thursday/Friday summit. As Dublin’s high wire act over the border demonstrates, it doesn’t take a very large Euro-spanner to jam up the works. Paradoxically, the big national spanners (Germany’s and er, Germany’s) will eventually bend the smaller spanners to its will, whatever it turns out to be once Berlin gets a new government.

Defeated candidate for chancellor, the German Ed Miliband, Martin Shultz’s ‘United States of Post-Austerity Europe’ speech, enraged ‘I-told-you-so’ Brexiteers and was dismissed by Angela Merkel’s allies. In fact it was Macron-esque in its reformist scope, but it will not make it easier to form another SPD-CDU coalition deal with Merkel, for whom the threat comes from the nationalist right. SPD activists are none too keen either.

But let’s stay positive and proceed on the assumption that the EU 27’s summit has endorsed their sherpas’ verdict (those smiling Barnier and Juncker faces) that the Brits have finally conceded ‘sufficient progress’ to start the next stage of the divorce.

That means the two-year Brexit transition and even – in March? – the post-Brexit terms of trade. After dividing the CD collection, comes access to the children.

This, of course, is the point where most analysts say the negotiations become seriously difficult. It is the familiar ‘glass half-full or half-empty’ situation. Those of us who believe that the UK and EU will manage to avoid a ‘no deal’ bust-up subscribe to the half-full view; half-full of dry sherry in honour of the festive season. May repeats her ‘no deal better than bad deal’ slogan, but we now know she doesn’t mean it.

But there is undeniable force in the complaint made by more cerebral Brexiteers – the Telegraph’s former editor and spiritual guru, Charles Moore, was quick to protest – that Friday’s dawn drama in Brussels merely kicked a number of cans down the road.

The noisiest was the ambiguous nature of the Irish border agreement which promises mutually contradictory things to all the interested parties: no hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland; no hard border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain; and no membership of the single market and customs union between the UK and the EU, including that winding Irish border. In other words, some form of border.

Tricky eh? As we noted here last week, the Irish border conundrum gets to the heart of the future economic relationship between Britain and the EU. The topic – so Philip Hammond explicitly revealed last week and was not slapped down – is one the full cabinet has yet to discuss. Even after days in which to absorb that remarkable admission, it comes as a shock.

But should it? From Land’s End to John O’Groats sentient citizens can work out why that is so. The cabinet does not discuss the end state it seeks for Brexit Britain because the cabinet is deeply divided. Canada-plus, or even ‘plus, plus, plus’ as the Brexit bulldog put it? Norway-minus, as Labour’s Keir Starmer suggested, apparently with John McDonnell’s (‘reformed single market’) consent, but not the party leader’s?

Safely back inside the orbit of the single market and customs union, as some Remainers (suspicious Brexiteers too) were quick to interpret Friday’s 15-page agreement as implying? WTO terms or bust, as Hard Brexits still say, though not very loudly lately?

If the cabinet is hopelessly divided, in fairness it should be said that so is the shadow cabinet, and with less excuse. When May quipped that Jeremy Corbyn, busy back-tracking on Brexit terms again as usual, ‘cannot even agree with himself’, she made a half-decent joke, but one which could equally have applied to herself.

So ‘constructive ambiguity’ rather than ‘regulatory alignment’ is the key phrase of the moment, a ‘fudge’ in pub talk. As a template for practical government I am in favour of them. The concept allows conflicting views to rally round something that all parties know carries various interpretations. It often tides over tactical difficulties, but it sometimes carries the seeds of future danger when events unexpectedly drift off course and facts become fake ones.

Thus the UN Security Council’s resolution (UNSCR 1441) of November 8 2002, requiring Saddam Hussein to comply with all its demands for Iraq’s abandonment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) rested on a fatal ambiguity.

The Bush administration – with Tony Blair’s eventual acquiescence – took it to permit the use of military force. Other Security Council members, most vocally Jacques Chirac’s France, insisted the proposed US-UK invasion would require a fresh resolution. Without that ambiguity/fudge there would have been no unanimity, even token unanimity.

Of course, Iraq all went horribly wrong, a major contributor to the geo-political instability we all face today, including Putin’s bloody ‘triumph’ in Syria, Trump’s triumphs inside his own head, Britain’s alienation from Europe and from the pragmatic centre-left anchor that was Blairism in its prime.

Trust was badly degraded and the moral equivalence between the BBC and CNN – honest but not infallible – versus Trump cheerleaders, Fox News and Breitbart – wilfully deceitful – was established. Along with it came fast-evolving information technology which makes the Iraq War look as old-fashioned as Waterloo.

A prime example of corroding trust came in David Davis’s casual suggestion on television that May’s deal on the Irish border was merely a ‘statement of intent,’ not legally enforceable. The line was echoed briefly in Whitehall, then shot down. The DExEU secretary was forced to explain away (‘taken out of context’) and withdraw his own comment next day. What are voters supposed to believe? In Belgium ex-PM Guy Verhofstadt testily made clear it is more than that.

Davis’s later remark that ‘I don’t have to be very clever, I don’t have to know much’ to do his day job reinforces both mistrust and the impression that the marginalisation of the cabinet’s ‘Three Brexiteers’ – Johnson, Fox and Davis – has now gone one stage further. David who?

There is opportunity in this, but also danger. So keep an eye open for Michael Gove on manoeuvres, Gove who was authorised to wave some residual red lines in Saturday’s Telegraph. In particular, pay attention to the fishing rights to which this son of Aberdeen is so attached. He may be treacherous (ask Dave or Boris) and unloved, but is the best cabinet card the Brexits will have when the promised cabinet showdown comes.

But bright sunshine falls on still-pristine snow in many parts of Britain: cold and disruptive, a lovely winter moment too. Let’s stick with the positivity. What have we got out of May’s tactical victory over her domestic critics, snatched from the jaw of Monday’s humiliating, hour-long Belfast phone call while JC Juncker drummed his fingers?

Chiefly, I think, that she still has enough resilience to get through such dreadful moments and manage to attend a charity event in her Maidenhead constituency on Friday night, a small but instructive detail. She cannot afford another negotiating omnishambles that gives Grant Shapps renewed reason to sharpen his non-EU Swiss Army penknife. But it must have restored some self-belief.

No more shambles means a better operation in No 10. Some are suggesting that Nick Timothy, who is said to take her calls quite often, must be let back inside the building where more energy seems to have gone into the fabled Christmas party than into much else lately – not just Brexit either. To reinstate Timothy as chief of staff (solo) is probably a step too far for cabinet ministers.

But if May’s Oxford pal and trusted lieutenant, Damian Green, is forced out by sexual scandal (bets were still running each way early this week), the blow will be serious. Brexiteers who suspect that the power vacuum allows senior civil servants, most conspicuously, Oliver Robbins, to run most of the show, will go after them more than they already do.

Thanks to May’s Dacre protection squad at the Mail, Robbins has not yet had the full hair drier treatment meted out to ‘Sir Cover-up’ Jeremy Heywood. Remember, James Slack, former home affairs and briefly political editor of the Mail (he wrote the Enemies of the People attack on the Supreme Court’s A50 verdict), is now the Downing St spokesman.

By Trump White House standards Slack is a moderate and an important conduit. But if things go bad for May the Mail will abandon ship – as it did with Dacre’s former pal, Gordon Brown. Watch out, James.

Newspapers analysing Friday’s 15-page peace treaty scored the outcome in differing ways you’d expect, a mixture of wins, defeats and compromises for both sides – but mainly deft retreats by the Brits in the face of reality.

The fact that much of the Tories’ Hard Brexit wing has left screams of ‘betrayal’ and ‘humiliation’ to UKIP and the semi-detached Nigel Farage, strikes me as highly significant.

If May is sufficiently pragmatic to cut a deal with Brussels, perhaps enough of them are sufficiently like-minded to cut one with her and avert the danger of an unreconstructed Corbyn ‘led’ government. What would it look like? Too soon to say, but those tectonic plates are moving.

A version of Soft Brexit, located somewhere between Canada and Norway – the Icelandic model is actually Norwegian – becomes more likely, rooted in sectoral deals of the kind the UK chemicals industry and City interests are seeking.

A cut-and-paste fudge which delivers something on border control (David Blunkett’s ID cards might have come in handy), something on legal ‘sovereignty’, and those payments to Brussels might avert the much larger losses of control which the Rand Corporation study predicts for us.

On citizens’ rights May’s deal amounted to a face-saving compromise. Yes, the European Court of Justice (not the same as the ECHR, IDS !!) will be able to protect EU citizens in Britain, but only in cases which the UK Supreme Court voluntarily refers to it and for a ‘mere’ eight years. We will be ‘taking into account’ ECJ rulings indefinitely.

On money, May won and lost points, but the net figure will be spread out over decades and fudged, something to help the Sun and Daily Express fill empty pages of grudge which might otherwise be white space. At around £40bn, it is a far cry from ‘go whistle’, but the whistler claims to be happy too. He has been busy unpicking his own sloppy diplomacy in Tehran.

On the Irish border issue, well, we’ll have to see. ‘No one should underestimate the difficulty we will face on this issue,’ Michel Barnier, his clock briefly on pause, reminded reporters. No wonder the wits dubbed it an Irish version of the philosopher Schrodinger’s famous cat: simultaneously dead and alive, its status dependent on future uncontrollable events.

Perhaps that is Schrodinger’s moment of truth, for which the Hard Brexit posse is biding its time and keeping its powder dry, to shoot the pesky cat if chance arises. Tony Blair, Nick Clegg (astonished that May has not worked the EU leaders’ political network harder) still hanker for some form of what Vince Cable calls ‘exit from Brexit’ when voters finally realise that it’s not worth the candle.

Polls vary and YouGov’s findings for the Times suggested this week that 45% now think Brexit a bad decision against 44% who do not. It is hardly a landslide switch, one that would lead logically to a second referendum. May’s last-minute deal has reduced those who think she is doing a bad/good job in negotiation from 64% (bad) to 21% (good) to 57:25%, hardly a mandate for two large Christmas sherries.

But snow, Trump and a medical breakthrough on Huntington’s disease ensured that Monday night’s BBC News at Ten passed without a single mention of Brexit. Rejoice!

And Johnny Hallyday’s death and funeral in Paris were respectfully reported in the British media. Not the French Cliff Richard at all, the French Elvis. That should be worth some goodwill in 2018.

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