Brian Monteith: Theresa May is neither down nor out

British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures  as she delivers a speech in Florence aimed at unlocking Brexit talks. Pic: Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures as she delivers a speech in Florence aimed at unlocking Brexit talks. Pic: Getty Images
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The Prime Minister is playing a sensible game that might yet put her in the driving seat on Europe, writes Brian Monteith

Theresa May’s Florence speech on Friday flattered the EU to deceive – it is not the sellout that so many of her critics who are rushing to judge allege. Well, not yet, at least.

To understand what is afoot we all need to take a step back and consider the context in which the Prime Minister’s speech was made and what she is trying to do. I may lose a few of my friends in the leave campaign for saying this but I do not believe that Theresa May is seeking to betray the British public that voted for leaving the EU, or indeed the now larger majority who have urged her to get on with leaving so we can make the best of the opportunities available to us.

There is far too much partisan tribalism in the reactions I have been reading, be it from Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, or Keir Starmer. Let us remember both Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn urged the triggering of Article 50 immediately following the referendum. Such an abrupt approach risked a far greater period of economic uncertainty and nervousness that could have made George Osborne’s grossly pessimistic warnings self-fulfilling.

Without a hint of irony about her own management of Scottish domestic policy or rush to have a second independence referendum, Sturgeon (and Cable and Starmer) attacked Theresa May’s government for not knowing what it is doing – ignoring the fact it was a different government, that of David Cameron and George Osborne, that commissioned the referendum without any contingency plans were the public to reject their advice.

May has therefore required time; time to bring her divided party together (while all the parties have been divided or had leadership contests to contend with); time to craft a strategy that could give us hope of a successful outcome by defining what Brexit would mean; and, time for her negotiating team to work out the detail behind the raw sloganising.

To believe it could have been any different had say, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove or Boris Johnson been at the helm is wishful thinking – for the Tories would undoubtedly have suffered greater fratricidal bloodletting under their leadership. Had Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s man for all seasons, been in charge the UK would have changed policy almost weekly – for that has been his behaviour under less pressure and scrutiny as opposition leader. Just how Corbyn would have managed his parliamentary party that neither trusts him or wishes to leave the EU, while seeking to satisfy the demands of the majority of the public (and majority of Labour-held constituencies) that voted to leave is a mystery best not wasting time on.

Meanwhile we have an EU Commission intent on buying time until the French and German elections were out of the way and in complete denial that its rejection by UK voters represents a huge failure to recognise how its polices divide Europeans rather than unite them. Oblivious to this reality we have EU President, Jean-Claude Junker, making a state of the union speech saying “more Europe” is needed, including every EU member being brought into the Euro and building an EU army. We also have the EU Parliament President talking of a deeper Europe and wishing to punish Britain for our effrontery.

Facing, as it is, a massive budget crisis of its own making (the EU actually intends to increase spending after the UK leaves!) the EU negotiator Michel Barnier is fixated with a divorce settlement.

That is the context in which May’s speech had to be made, and it is to her credit that she extended a hand of friendship to the EU members states and talked, positively, of forging strong working relationships, of agreeing a time-limited transition period, and of making contributions to EU costs during that period.

There is no doubt the Prime Minister is in a weaker political position thanks to her election misjudgement – and her nervous, at times stuttering, delivery showed she is undoubtedly aware of her political mortality. Gone was the self-confidence of her Lancaster House “Global Britain” speech eight months ago.

It should not be difficult for the EU to agree a trade deal with the UK, we already comply with its laws and regulations, and any divergence that takes place would only apply to us domestically or internationally with non-EU countries. If South Korea and Canada (amongst many) can have free trade agreements with the EU’s single market without paying an annual membership fee, then why can’t we? The EU negotiating team and devout remainers here at home have no answer to this.

Despite Theresa May’s willingness to signal she is willing to bend and find some accommodations, there remains a very strong possibility the sado-masochistic faction within the Brussels leadership – wishing to teach us a lesson so that others do not follow – will simply ask for more, and in doing so ask for too much.

Earlier in the week Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was demanding May agree to a five year transition period while Boris Johnson could agree to no more than two years. That the Prime Minister sided with her Foreign Secretary demonstrates she recognises the UK has limits. Indeed when asked in Firenze if she still accepted “no deal would be better than a bad deal” she said she did. She also reaffirmed we would leave the Single Market and Customs Union and David Davis has since confirmed we shall leave the ECJ jurisdiction in 2019.

The lesson that critics of a transition period or of making continued payments to the EU have lost sight of is you cannot have a transition to an agreement if there is no agreement in the first place. You cannot make a financial contribution towards the costs of a partnership if there is no partnership to contribute to.

The Prime Minister has extended a generous hand of friendship – if the EU rejects her offer it is she who will be strengthened and in a far stronger position to say she tried to reach agreement but that the EU was not interested in finding a solution.

She will then have the British public’s sympathy when she declares no deal has to be better than a bad deal and her critics will understand the nature of the strategy she has had to adopt.

Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain