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Theresa May's Brexit Speech Still Leaves A Lot To Chance

24/01/2017 12:44

The dust has begun to settle on Theresa May's highly anticipated Brexit speech.

If you read the newspapers, you'd think the UK and Theresa May are riding high, and that May's words were pitch perfect. But is that really the case? Are we really any closer to knowing what Brexit looks like, reaching a deal that will provide answers to the difficult questions many of our businesses are facing - or giving the thousands of talented people from Europe living in the UK answers about their future, and vice versa?

When did Theresa May become a Brexiteer?

No doubt the coverage of May's speech was positive on the whole. After dithering for a couple of months, and leaving the newspapers and the public guessing about her views, at least she came off the fence and told us exactly what kind of Brexit we are going to have. But, quite how she could morph from a supporter of the Remain camp during the referendum campaign to the Prime Minister who will lead the country out of Europe - and totally sever our commercial links with the EU - is a mystery to me.

How did it happen? Was there a moment when the light shone down and told her that hard Brexit was the way to the promised land? Or did she always believe that? And if so, why didn't she tell the country at the same time Johnson, Gove, and the rest of the Brexiteers did? Or does she think as the new custodian of our government that it's her duty to deliver the wishes of the people, or at least the 51.9% who voted for it, regardless of what she personally believes in?

It's the Daily Mail wot won it

I think that the Damascene conversion, if there indeed was one, has more to do with the need to cater to Brexit voters, Conservative Party members, and the right-wing media. The speech was clearly heavily targeted to appeal to that constituency, much the same way as May's speech to the Tory faithful at Conference was.

I have for some time thought that the country - with due respect to newspaper proprietors Murdoch, Desmond, the Barclay brothers, and even Lord Rothermere - is actually run by Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail. As a politician, as long as you do what the Mail says you will get an easy ride, especially with the demographic that leans heavily towards the Conservative Party, and conservative views in general.

The Daily Mail, and the right-wing media that surrounds it, has the ability to control and manipulate the public's opinion. If you want to appear like you're doing the right thing, get them on your side... and they will tell the public that you are.

That would explain why her speech was so well-received. She did exactly what Paul Dacre wanted. She said everything that the Daily Mail, and its readers, love to hear: Britain is a great trading country. We still have an Empire on which the sun never sets. We can go it alone in this new world - just like we did in the past! We have been held back by those pesky European countries. There are countries around the world, like the US and New Zealand, that will run into our arms, and offer us trade deals. We have a bright future!

The Government even managed to speak via a backdoor in the form of Michael Gove to President-elect Donald Trump through an interview in The Telegraph. Trump almost promised we could have a trade deal, unlike that awful Obama who told us we couldn't - something which I'm sure badly backfired during the referendum campaign. This added to the feeling that everything seems to be working out. The stars have aligned, and the Government was making Brexit work.

I sense there is a growing acceptance of Brexit among the public. In fact, I suspect that if there were a rerun of the referendum today, the Leave margin would be reasonably higher. After all, this time it's official policy, unlike last time when the Government was visibly split down the middle, so there was no official position, only the position of Cameron and Osborne. And whatever purported to be the official opposition is in even more disarray than last time. In fact, apart from Tim Farron, the Government has no opposition whatsoever, certainly not on the issue of Europe. Should things stay as they are, there would be no solace for Remainers were there to be a second referendum.

Trumped up trade deal

But how much of this should we actually believe, and how much of it is shaky PR propped up by desperate Brexiteers who are trying to give the appearance that everything is working out - helped along by a supportive Paul Dacre?

Let's start with the Trump trade deal promise. It's hard to believe much of what Trump says. He is committed to delivering an isolationist policy, probably the one thing we can believe in, so rushing to knock off a trade deal with the UK could well disappear as quickly as it appeared. I would certainly not hold my breath.

Do we have the experience to make this work?

Secondly, the process of charming our European neighbours has hardly got off to a great start. Boris Johnson, our charming Foreign Secretary, has put his very big foot in it again, harking back to the Second World War in discussions with France and Germany.

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time in very healthy and happy business relationships with European companies and partners. You don't mention the war. It's not funny, especially to Germans. It's just downright insensitive and insulting. What the negotiation will need is subtlety, and that is exactly what is missing right now. A successful negotiation will demand that the Foreign Secretary has the command of the cultural nuances of 27 countries.

Thirdly, the Government needs an expert team which has the capacity, depth of experience, and knowledge to negotiate with the EU. While the Government might currently command the support of both the public and the right-wing media, the same level of support doesn't seem to exist amongst our top EU officials and negotiators. The most high-profile evidence of this was the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK's then-Ambassador to the EU, at the start of this year.

We know it's hard Brexit, but there's still no strategy

Finally, while it is now clear what the Government and Theresa May want, it is not clear how they are going to achieve it. They want a so-called hard Brexit with a free trade deal with Europe. But what's the strategy? Tit-for-tat won't work. It won't work to hold Europe to ransom. It won't work to tell France that if it wants to continue to sell its cheese to the UK or the Italians its Prosecco, the UK will also need market access to Europe.

Why won't it? First, Germany and Merkel cannot allow the partner walking out on the marriage to have a better settlement than the other countries like Switzerland and Norway who want to sleep in the same house. And they will certainly will not want to encourage any other departures. And secondly, any deal will need the support of the other 27 members, most of whom don't sell us wine, cheese, or cars!

Theresa May's speech might have won her the support for Paul Dacre for the moment, but there is still time for everything to unravel.

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