Theresa May's 'Running Commentary' And The Clash Between Policy And Politics

12/09/2016 07:46
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Old hands in press offices across Whitehall nodded their heads in recognition this week: one of the old favourites was back. "We don't give a running commentary on..." This time it was Brexit, with the phrase trotted out several times by Theresa May and other ministers. The phrase is an old standby for the public sector when it needs to stonewall on almost anything: a police investigation, budget negotiations, the appointment of a new senior official. It allows the speaker to adopt an indignant tone, as if even being asked to provide such a thing is an affront, and to do so would be quite improper. Of course, it ignores the fact that often ministers are only too willing to give a running commentary on a whole host of issues. Within Whitehall, the phrase is recognised as signalling (a) nothing is happening, (b) things are moving excruciatingly slowly, or (c) things are actually going from bad to worse.

With Brexit, the reality is (b): things are happening, but slowly. That much was made clear by the statements this week from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Brexit, David Davis. Mr Davis, once a self-styled ex-SAS man of action, revealed that his plan for Brexit (after two months of work) was to spend a lot of time talking to everybody involved (which is, er, everybody) and then come up with a plan which the whole country could agree on. Understandably, those on all sides of the debate were unimpressed.

The policy on Brexit, of course, is right. This is one of the most important and complex tasks a Government has embarked on in peacetime, and it needs to be got right. Civil servants will advise, correctly, that Mrs May only has one stab at the Brexit negotiations so she had better be well prepared. What are the options for access to the single market, and how might that play out regarding freedom of movement? What does the financial services sector, or pharmaceuticals, need? All options need to be modelled and then compared with what various EU member states might be prepared to offer, drawing on advice from our ambassadors across the Continent and in Brussels. Only then can a proper negotiating plan be drawn up, with realistic objectives.

This diligent strategy happens to chime with Mrs May's personal approach, which is to digest every jot of evidence on an issue before reaching a decision, preferring to delay it rather than get it wrong. (The Hinkley Point nuclear reactor is the most high-profile instance of this.)

The Prime Minister's problem is that while her Brexit policy is right, the politics are all wrong. After the political earthquake of the referendum and its aftermath, the world - literally, from Tokyo to Washington to Canberra - is waiting to see how the UK will leave the EU. A vocal minority of her backbenchers and Leave voters are on the alert for signs of sell-out and betrayal on freedom of movement. Yet the City and industry are looking for signs that they will still have access to the single market. Most important, everyone wants an end to the current uncertainty so that, like it or not, they can start planning for life post-Brexit. This is a classic case of the imperatives of politics and policy pushing in diametrically opposed directions. Civil servants present the best policy. Politicians push their political agendas. The role of Government is to reconcile the two. That's Mrs May's challenge and she will find soon enough that methodical preparation is a luxury afforded ministers only during their honeymoon in office. Patience on all sides is starting to run out and she will soon come under pressure to make some dramatic gestures on Brexit or watch her political stock plunge. It is only a short step from being seen a 'safe pair of hands' to a do-nothing who is out of her depth. Judging by the steely ambition she has shown in her rise to power, she will not be prepared to let that happen.