Theresa May’s road to Brexit speech last week at Mansion House delivered the inevitable. Instead of inflammatory “red, white and blue” language it was honest, detailed, serious and perhaps the most conciliatory we have seen her to date. It was inevitable that eventually she must deliver a speech which aimed to bring together the warring factions. She has spent the last 20 months alienating those in the Remain camp and internally her party is tearing itself apart, and that’s even before we start on how she has handled relations with the EU.
John Major said that Europe is the beast that gets to all Prime ministers in the end- it did it for him, and we all know what became of David Cameron.
But back to May’s speech; the positives are that she acknowledged things she previously had resolutely refused to, for example she admitted for the first time that Britain will not get the same kind of access to the European markets after Brexit in the we currently do. She was also clear that in order to operate within the EU it will be necessary for the UK to continue to make financial contributions, and she conceded that the European Courts will have some effect over UK legislation. The latter point had previously been a red line, so this was a big shift.
The message was clear: the expectation that the UK would continue to enjoy the same benefits outside the union as inside would has gone-realisation is finally setting in.
However, although a shift in her speech was clear what she articulated continued to be, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote this weekend, “fantastical”.
She told those gathered at Mansion House: “We must bring our country back together, considering the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate.”
May’s great plan to unite where there is such huge division is an impossible task, one she clearly underestimates. Although May should not be blamed for all that has happened in the last 20 months, after all she did inherit Brexit, she has made life more difficult for her own premiership but more importantly her tone has on many occasions threatened to jeopardise the entire agreement.
Her lack of experience in international negotiations is no secret, she was, in fact, previously Home Secretary. Even this weekend she told Andrew Marr that in many ways Brexit is a very simple thing. What a magnificent underestimation that really is. The complexity and risk are enormous – we need not look any further than the current negotiations over the issue of Northern Ireland to realise the implications of taking such a gamble.
May’s, up until now, hard line approach to Brexit has divided a country where the outcome of Brexit was so narrow. Yet she has continuously alienated the entire Remain camp by using terms like “crushing the opposition”, and its won her no plaudits. Most importantly, and as Andrew Rawnsley observes, by taking such a trajectory with the European Union she has “made the negotiations much thornier.”
The speech wasn’t met with any great shakes on either side, what it will achieve is yet to be decided. What we do know is that by next March we must have a much clearer idea of where the UK is going.
But my own position remains-as I said in my article for Left Foot Forward last week: “It would be an act of unbelievable recklessness to leave without knowing where we’re going at the end of the Brexit process.
Moreover, it would be simply foolish to swap our existing deal for an inferior one.”