This week in politics: Boris, by-elections and bad jokes
What the parties said
Theresa May gave her much-anticipated speech on the Government’s strategy and priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiations on Tuesday. The speech centred around a 12 point plan which signalled intentions to leave the single market and quit full customs union membership. May warned her counterparts in Europe that no deal for the UK was better than a bad one, adding a failure by the EU to strike a trade agreement would be a ‘calamitous act of self harm’. May’s speech received a mixed response on the continent, but any goodwill from France was soon put into jeopardy by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who compared President Francois Hollande to a World War Two prison guard.
Responding to the Government’s plans, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer MP caused surprise in Labour ranks when he told MPs that should May achieve her aims, it would not amount to a hard Brexit. Labour MPs may have also been reeling from the decision to launch Labour’s new website on the NHS the same day as the most anticipated political speech of the year, missing last week’s opportune moment to attack the Tories NHS record.
Nicola Sturgeon MSP, who has repeatedly warned that a hard Brexit would trigger another Scottish independence referendum, failed to call a Scottish independence referendum following the news that the Government would pursue a hard Brexit.
What the papers said
In the New Statesman this week, Stephen Bush looked at the shift in Theresa May’s reputation over the course of her premiership from steady hand to indecisive leader tasked with managing the leaving process, arguing it explained the various currency fluctuations that have surrounded her announcements on Brexit. Lacking in authority, he suggests her words are listened to momentarily and then forgotten, resulting in an immediate drop in the value of the pound following any major speech, bouncing back to its original position shortly after.
Tom McTague praised the PM’s Brexit speech for fleshing out the Government’s agenda, and for pursuing a savvy strategy of playing ‘hardball’ with EU leaders. By announcing plans to leave the single market, he argues she took control of ‘what’s on the table’ and got rid of an option that wasn’t compatible with her desire to cut immigration anyway. However, he argues on the issue of financial contributions the PM’s line was less well defined, with her comments hinting towards contributing to the EU budget in order to maintain some degree of access.
Sebastian Payne in the FT argues that whilst May has successfully courted Brexit supporters following her speech on Tuesday, by her commitment to leave the single market and cut immigration, those who voted to remain are still to be swayed. In her favour, he says, is the now widely accepted notion that the outcome of the referendum must be respected and cannot be stopped. Rather, he calls on May to make good on her pledge to pursue a more globalised vision of Britain, particularly on trade.
On the benches
By all means not the first person to fall for fake news on the internet, this week SNP MP, Dr Paul Monaghan momentarily believed and retweeted a graphic mocked up by comedian Rufus Hound which mocks the Prime Minister. The graphic shows May saying that ‘yes we’ll be poorer’ but isn’t it worth it to become that ‘bitter tax haven, isolated from humanity by a xenophobic media’. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.
Insert Joke Here…
Despite a bad week for Labour in the polls, there was one poll in particular which leader Jeremy Corbyn came top of, although we suspect he might not be too happy about it. Following his comment at PMQs that ‘It’s not so much the Iron Lady but the irony lady!’, the Daily Mirror ran a survey to find out if this was the ‘Worst PMQs joke of all time’, which Corbyn won resoundingly. The joke, and we use the term loosely, drew groans from MPs and spectators alike, with one watcher calling for PMQs to be cancelled altogether. Despite Intelex’s love for parliamentary politics, at that point we were inclined to agree…
Too many tweets
UKIP leader Paul Nuttall MP was left a little red faced this week, after describing new US President Donald Trump as an ‘anglophobe’ and going on to say ‘he loves this country!’. Once he realised that Anglophobe actually means the exact opposite of what he tweeted, Nuttall quickly deleted the tweet and was subject to jesting on Twitter. Still, the UKIP leader is rumoured to be the party’s candidate for the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, so its Nuttall bad.
Good week/Bad week
Good Week for Nick Timothy, who has received praise for the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech this week. Timothy is a long time adviser to Theresa May and now serves as her joint Chief of Staff alongside Fiona Hill. He has been described as May’s ‘political brain’ in the past and as ‘hugely influential, very clever and full of policy ideas’ by Work and Pensions Secretary, Damien Green. Timothy is a known Brexiteer among the Prime Minister’s inner circle, and his policy influence means that the plan set out this week is undoubtedly a reflection the kind of Brexit that Nick Timothy wants to see.
Bad week for Boris Johnson. You would have thought that if we might learn one political lesson from 2016, it might be not to cite Hitler, the Nazis or World War II in a political interview. But clearly there was something in the air at City Hall. This week, Boris decided to follow Theresa May’s speech this week by likening French President Francois Hollande to a German general, warning him not to administer ‘punishment beatings… in the manner of some World War II movie.’
Tweet of the week
The much acclaimed movie La La Land has made for fine political fodder this week.
Leave.eu, founded by arch brexiteer Aron Banks this week took the opportunity to hit back at Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron who harshly criticised the speech made by Theresa May setting out her red lines on Brexit negotiations.
Photo shopping Farron’s head over Ryan Gosling Leave.EU tweeted ‘The people want out of the failed EU! When it comes to Brexit, Remoaner @timfarron just can’t face the facts. He’s living in La La Land.’
We actually just feel sorry for Emma Stone, who has gone from dancing the night away with Ryan Gosling to dancing with Tim Farron. Maybe Ed Balls would be a better option after his Strictly tenure…
‘I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.’ – Prime Minister Theresa May on her willingness to walk away from negotiations with the EU if she doesn’t think she is getting a good deal for the UK.
‘Sad process, surrealistic times but at least more realistic announcement on #Brexit. EU27 united and ready to negotiate after Art. 50.’ – European Council President Donald Tusk reacting to Theresa May’s speech on Tuesday.
‘That is not a threat, it’s a statement of the blindingly obvious.’ – Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond on Britain’s threat to the EU to turn the UK into a low tax economy if they don’t get an adequate deal from negotiations.
In focus: May firms up her core position
Theresa May’s speech has been hailed as a historic moment for the UK; confirmation that Britain will leave the European Single Market which it had helped to build. But while it may be historic it is not a surprise. Ever since her October conference speech laid down the core red lines of her approach to Brexit – controls on freedom of movement and removal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – single market membership was dead. It is simply not possible for the UK to remain a member of a club if it is unwilling to sign up to one its four core tenets.
May’s speech finally and explicitly accepted that reality. It also provided further clarity on a number of other critical areas. The UK will no longer remain a full member of the customs union, though here the position remains uncertain, with May hinting at the desirability of securing special status for particular sectors – with the automotive industry presumably at the front of her mind. Britain will seek to retain the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland, and will continue to work closely with the EU on security matters. The PM also opened her mind to the possibility of a interim agreement that would cover certain areas including the all-important financial services industry.
She restated the Government’s belief that a deal could and should be done in two years and guaranteed that a final deal on Brexit would be put to both House of Parliament. However it was telling that the PM stated that a “bad deal would be worse than no deal”, signalling the Government’s willingness to fall back on WTO rules if necessary. That was in line with the warning issued by Philip Hammond in a German newspaper over the weekend, in which he said that the UK would be prepared to move to a more aggressive low tax economic model if the EU sought to undermine its existing trading arrangements.
Read our full commentary here.