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Theresa May ventured to Florence to deliver her first major speech on Brexit since the Lancaster House address in January. It was a speech designed to secure political unity at home whilst unlocking the talks taking place abroad.

Any suggestion that her Foreign Secretary could resign now appears wide of the mark. Boris Johnson immediately praised May, but his emphasis on securing a bespoke trade deal underlines how dependent the UK is on the EU agreeing to this request.

Therefore the speech may succeed in preserving the political peace in the short term. It may even encourage some forward momentum in the next round of talks. But on some of the fundamental issues about Britain’s future relationship with the EU it kicked the can down the road.

The Lancaster House speech contained red lines on taking back control of money, sovereignty and borders. It spoke of an implementation period to phase in a new free trade agreement that would have been sorted by March 2019.

Today, Mrs May accepted the need for a “time-limited implementation period” that would preserve market access on “current terms”.

Although the Prime Minister speculated that it may take two years, she stated that the length of this period should be:

determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin that future partnership”.

That marks a change in approach from January. It is formal acceptance of a status quo transition in which there will be continued freedom of movement, jurisdiction of the ECJ and payments into the EU budget.

The shift is a reflection of May’s personal weakness following the loss of her Commons majority, but also an indication of the fundamental weakness of the British position that initial negotiations have exposed.

The EU has not moved. As he set out in a speech yesterday, the EU will not permit the negotiations to move onto trade until the exit terms are agreed. Most fundamentally that means agreeing a financial settlement. Theresa May has been forced into making an opening offer in an effort to break the deadlock. It remains to be seen how it will be received.

Looking to the long term, the PM restated her hope that the UK and the EU can forge a special partnership that goes beyond existing models. Both the EEA and CETA were dismissed as viable arrangements; the first because it would require the UK to become a ‘rule taker’ without any ability to influence the laws it would be expected to enforce; the latter, because it would not be broad enough to deliver the economic benefits that both the UK and EU desire.

Instead Mrs May repeated her somewhat vague ambition to develop a new relationship that will preserve wide market access and close cooperation whilst enabling Britain to strike out as a global trading nation charting its own course.

This promises to be a tricky task. Michel Barnier’s speech yesterday was clear that there would be no cherry picking. In a critical passage he emphasised:

one thing is sure: it is not – and will not – be possible for a third country to have the same benefits as the Norwegian model but the limited obligations of the Canadian model.”

In the long term, that fundamental dilemma is one that the UK Government will have to wrestle with again.

Whether Theresa May will be the PM at that time is another question. Political circumstances have helped her ride out the crisis caused by the disastrous election result. But as the Brexit ‘transition phase’ begins to crystallise it may lead to discussions about whether she is the right person to lead Britain through it. Questions over her leadership will arise again.

They could even resurface in the short term depending on the EU’s reaction to May’s speech, which will have an important bearing on whether she can maintain political unity at home. Michel Barnier’s measured response in seeking further clarity on the ‘concrete implications’ of May’s speech signals there is a long way to go.

Any cold rejection of her offer today will embolden hard line Brexiteers who will be concerned that the PM is conceding too much group to the EU and to ‘soft’ elements of her cabinet.  The Tory conference therefore promises to be a bumpy ride

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