500 words on May

24 September 2017

The story so far…

The sequence of Brexit negotiation papers shows the emergence of the UK’s almost accidental strategy of “snares and lures”, together with a policy of delay and the lack of a money offer. Some see this as rectifying the gradual - if not chaotic - start for which the UK has been roundly criticised.

Maybe so. On the other hand, over the last four months the sequence of the paperwork demonstrates the UK catching up from behind; and - apparently since the election, though the timing may be a coincidence - attempting to draw the EU into matters excluded by its own directives. Britain’s negotiators have pushed this along this with promises of cooperation combined with hints that they may be conditional; the absence of a money offer; and an accumulating policy of delay.

This tells us that the UK’s negotiation team has stumbled its way into a fairly sophisticated but irreducibly high-risk strategy. It would be pleasant to believe that it has a fair chance at correspondingly high rewards. In any event, the EU team has been frustrated, sometimes exasperated; and so far, they have had little difficulty in resisting the UK’s approach. The net effect is deadlock.

The Florence speech

May’s approach to a breakthrough was gratifyingly firm. Although emollient in tone, she did not flinch from sotto voce repeating the offer in her Article 50 notice: cooperation on security for cooperation elsewhere. Her remarks about Britain’s longstanding semi-detachment from the European project were long overdue from a British Premier. She referred forthrightly to the Government’s position papers, of which some are ambitious and others merely guileful (Barnier would say “flakey”; click for analysis), asking Brussels to take them all more seriously.

She offered money, which was always going to be part of the deal; and transition/implementation with a newly minted “double lock”, which should help squaring circles. Her stance on immigration was inoffensive save to determined malcontents.

She was accurate and robust on the Customs Union, the Single Market, regulatory identity on Day Zero, divergence thereafter, and dispute resolution. She asked EU Heads of Government (ie, especially Merkel, crowned this weekend) to take a lead.

She dismissed existing trade models and repeatedly invited “imagination” and “flexibility”, tricky for the EU. So a crash-out remains on the cards. When prompted by the BBC’s (mischievous? primed?) Laura Kuensberg, May reluctantly took the opportunity to repeat “no deal is better than…” This means it would have been good to have heard more about Plan B, on which she touched almost imperceptibly.

Now the press is all about ministerial splits, but the speech came across as nicely balanced to hold the Cabinet together and set the right sort of tone in Europe. And although she ended up so exhausted that she couldn’t do justice to the climax crafted by her speechwriters, she gave the answer to my question from five days back. I asked, “Will she buckle?” She didn’t.