When you look into the eyes of Theresa May, do you see someone who really is going to do the Brexit thing? Who would really risk Scotland, maybe even Northern Ireland, leaving the UK? Who would put party before country?
I am not sure I do, and, therefore, may I be the first to talk about a leadership challenge to May within a year? Because when I look into the eyes of Boris Johnson I see a man whose political ambition is far from quenched. He is regrouping. He will be watching, and waiting, and calculating.
OK, that speculation may seem premature, even fanciful, when May has hardly started work, but it is perfectly conceivable. What becomes much less plausible the more you examine it is that idea she will actually take us out of the EU, or at least in the way that many Brexiteers may hope. We could get, in the end, something we might term “Brexit-Lite” – effectively most of the problems of EU membership in exchange for some of the current benefits. Nigel Farage wouldn’t like it.
You see, the trouble is that May’s catchphrase “Brexit means Brexit” should read “Brexit Means Brexit Means Nothing”. In the course of her negotiations she may do a little better than David Cameron did, but probably not that much. British premiers asking for help usually don’t. It is plainly not in the Europeans’ interests to make life outside the EU cushier than in it; otherwise everyone would want that deal. If, as she indicated in her limited interventions during the referendum campaign, May wishes to retain the advantages of access to the single market, then, sooner or later, she will have to accept that she has to give something in return. That – no surprise – will be quite a lot of migration from the EU, and a substantial contribution to the EU budget. If May doesn’t want to accept that, then Brexit really will mean Brexit. Life would go on, and all that, and it might well be better for the country in the long run if we did re-focus our trade and financial relations towards the wider world. However, it would be very painful in the short run, and politically unacceptable to her. So I doubt Theresa May would recommend that, full-on Brexit.
So May will most likely present to the House of Commons and the British people a “Brexit-Lite” proposal that will be more or less what we have now, but without a “seat at the table” ie we will have to have migration from East Europe and a dollop of cash going off to Brussels. We’d probably have to accept Euroepan Court jurisdiction on Single Market arguments, and accept the force of EU law and directives. That would basically be that. Brexit need not mean Brexit.
She has a track record too on talking tough but acting pragmatically. May is a politician not a sun god, after all. For years she banged on about migration, but presided over an immigration boom of significant proportions (to the great benefit of the UK economy, by the way). During the launch of her leadership campaign she also, almost without a splash, chucked overboard her long-standing ambition, reiterated just a few weeks before, to take Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights. Now she says: “I’ve set my position on the ECHR out very clearly but I also recognise that this is an issue that divides people, and the reality is there will be no Parliamentary majority for pulling out of the ECHR, so that is something I’m not going to pursue.”
I suspect she is capable of much more spectacular manoeuvres than that.
In which case many Leave voters would have a new choice. Support May's deal, which, as many Remainers, including herself, predicted, is actually worse than being proper members of the EU; or get all angry about her “failure” and “betrayal” of the referendum result. The whispers will go round Westminster that she and her team of grey ministers weren’t up to the job of negotiation, and that she caved in too much. It is at that point that the blond bomber will make his second bid for Number 10, “putting nation first”, “rescuing Brexit”, quoting Churchill and all that.
So “Brexit Means Getting a Deal that is a Lot like EU membership But Not Quite as Good Because We Haven’t Got a Vote” is very likely going to be Theresa May’s proposition, truthfully told, as we grind through the talks in 2017.
At some point in the next year or two our new Prime Minister may say to the country: “Look, now we have a concrete Brexit Package on the table, at least in principle. It is the only one we can get. Suggesting otherwise is fantasy. You now know the sums and the consequences in concrete terms. Indeed we have had a year when you could see what effect the idea of Brexit has had on financial markets and the real economy. It is up to you, the people, to decide which to choose. In 2016 Brexit meant different things to different people. No longer. Now you can choose between Remain as full members; or Leave with a settled and known Brexit package, a New Deal with the EU. This is too important for political games, so I will accept the verdict of the people whichever way it goes, and implement it”.
Cue the Boris bluster. Cue a second referendum. Cue the return of Nigel Farage. Cue…some more fun. We may well wonder if what we have been through these past few weeks was worth it.
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