Andrew Grice / Oct 2016
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Theresa May, the British prime minister. Photo: European Union
After 100 days of fog since the UK voted to leave the EU, we finally have some clarity after Theresa May hinted strongly that she wanted a clean break in which Britain would leave the single market.
The Prime Minister told the Conservative Party conference that the UK was not leaving the EU to give up control of immigration or be subject to European Court of Justice rulings. Although she also talked about “maximum freedom” for British firms to operate in the single market, she hinted that curbing migration will trump trade in the negotiations. May insisted that “soft” or “hard” Brexit was a false choice, but Tory MPs saw her speech as meaning that she sees Britain’s future outside the single market.
Ministers insist that May has not given up hope of staying in it. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, struck a different tone, saying the public had not voted in the referendum to become poorer or less secure. He is battling to protect the financial services, car and aerospace industries from the impact of Brexit.
It looks as though May will play hardball with the EU, aiming very high with an opening bid that in effect tells the 27 other leaders: “We’re leaving, we want control of our borders, it’s in your interests to keep free trade with us – so what do you want.” It has been dubbed the “Boris option” in Whitehall after Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said his policy on cake was “pro having it and pro eating it.” EU leaders have already made clear that the bloc’s “four freedoms” must be respected if a country is inside the single market. So May’s allies are worried that such an “ask for the moon” approach could be immediately rebuffed.
One reason why May announced that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would be invoked by next March was in the hope that the deadline would draw EU leaders into informal “talks about talks" to given her a better idea of what the EU might offer. But the prospect was immediately rejected by Donald Tusk and Germany. No doubt May will try backdoor routes, but so far they have been closed; the EU is standing firm and together.
The 27 leaders and the European Commission will find that the Prime Minister keeps her cards close to her chest. She is refusing to give a “running commentary” or “blow-by-blow account” of the negotiations. It is not even certain that specific UK goals will be set out in the letter from May triggering Article 50. “History is littered with negotiations that failed when the interlocutors predicted the outcome in detail and in advance,” May said. She might just have had David Cameron’s ill-fated renegotiation in mind.
It is thought that Article 50 could be triggered as early as January. The March deadline will concentrate minds in Whitehall, which has seen turf wars between the “Three Brexiteers” – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.
May’s announcement showed that the EU will be dealing with a clever political operator. Civil servants had been fretting how their political masters would present the explosive plan to incorporate EU legislation into UK law – the only way to provide some stability while the Government decides which EU laws to keep, a process that could take 10 years. May buried this in the fanfare about a Great Repeal Bill next spring to revoke the 1972 Act which took Britain into the EC. Although it will not take effect until the UK leaves the EU, it was a crowd pleaser for the Tories – and clever politics.
The Bill will give Parliament its say on Brexit but, crucially, May is not giving MPs and peers what many of them want – a vote on Article 50, and the right to shape the Brexit deal. May regards both as off limits. With a Remain majority in both the Commons and Lords, there will be trouble ahead for the Prime Minister, who has no intention of sub-contracting the Brexit negotiations to anyone.
Although we now know more about the Brexit timetable, we still do not know what the inscrutable May will ask for – or, more importantly, what she will actually settle for. Her Sphinx-like qualities will doubtless frustrate EU leaders as well as the UK Parliament for the next two and a half years.