To her biographer Rosa Prince she is Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister. Her notoriously terse, apparently intransigent statements of intentions, positions and demands do indeed mask options she can exploit and, as need be, present as stages duly achieved and victories hard won.
Does she mean what she says? Yes, she does. But what she says is not as simplistic or merely intransigent as it at first appears. There is always a core meaning: ultimate principles or goals she will stick to come what may. But then there are degrees and extents to which those principles can be realised – and by what points and means along a direction of travel. Those are the operational meanings she will reveal and spin in due course. This amounts to a strategy whereby she buys time to phase actual outcomes, imperfect as they may be, and manage expectations. Many former close colleagues failed to credit her with that kind of political imagination and nous. The mistake has cost them dearly.
Take her approach to education. Make no mistake, May envisages her Britain thriving on the basis of a selective jigsaw of education. That’s the principle and ultimate objective she will never surrender. Free schools were one piece of the jigsaw. Those grammar schools to which she is so (quixotically, perhaps) attached are another.
Then there’s immigration. Reportedly, she maddened Cameron and colleagues by insisting on getting net migration down to the tens of thousands. She has just re-affirmed that objective. Possibly this will lead to her Canute moment when the tide refuses to oblige. On the other hand, this is political prime time to re-state the intent – without setting a delivery date. Anyway, it’s the principle of the thing that matters: a commitment to driving the numbers down and down tick by tick. The big risk, of course, is that repeated failures to get the numbers moving in the right direction will undermine belief in the intent and goal.
A Brexit roadmap
‘Brexit means Brexit’. For weeks stretching into months she would not be drawn on what that meant. Some report that leading EU figures were left feeling nonplussed and put out when their attempts to have illuminating little chats with her elicited nothing but chants of her public mantra. If true, this may support Eric Pickles’ opinion that she is not a ‘transactional’ politician and lacks the agility, not to say people skills, to be a good negotiator. But it is just as much the mark of someone taking time, as she always has, to prepare her position and moves, to be revealed at a time of her choosing for maximum impact.
Discounting for spin and confected shock-horror, it seems she did just that at the notorious dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker at No. 10 on 26 April. The core meaning of Brexit, as she sees it and aims to have it, was made clear. All law-making and decision-making powers to be repatriated to a Britain outside the single market and customs union and as far as possible (not that far, perhaps) beyond the reach of the ECJ, but coupled by 2019 with the basis – not necessarily fine details – of trade and other deals, the remaining business to be figured out and settled during a transition period stretching to 2022 (the next British general election) and possibly beyond. And, oh yes, she will be stumping up minimum possible amounts of monies the EU says Britain owes.
Is this an impossible deal with an impossible timetable, totally unacceptable to the EU because it couples the divorce settlement with new outline or illustrative terms of trade and other arrangements to be agreed in short order? Does it show she is a ‘bloody difficult woman’ with little grasp of what the EU must demand or of the complexities to be worked through and whose obduracy may wreck negotiations before they start? No – or at least not necessarily so, although she has made it plain (and they had better believe her) that she is prepared to walk away into the realm of WTO rules. Alternatively, by invoking Protocol 36 she gave a broad hint as to a way forward. Protocol 36 is a device that could be adapted to allow Britain to resile from EU laws and regulations en masse – then negotiate conformity to some in Britain’s interests and in ways that would work for the EU too. Although none of this wheeling and dealing can be ultimately or completely concealed, it could be done relatively quietly and, stretched over a number of years, some of it need not attract too much attention.
Meantime it would allow May to go back to the British parliament in 2019 saying that she’d duly achieved the core objectives and meaning of Brexit: the repatriation of powers and British rights to decide everything thereafter strictly speaking in British interests. Of course, much can and likely will go wrong. But it’s a roadmap of sorts.
Obstacles on the way to a Promised Land
The list of obstacles and things that may go wrong or backfire is extensive. To start with, key EU figures have at this stage rejected the Protocol 36 ploy. Such is the bad feeling left by previous British behaviour and ongoing interference in the workings of the EU that somewhat punitive attitudes may prevail in spite of disavowals. At the very least, and especially now with such strong links between Merkel and Macron, Britain must not be seen to gain from leaving; and so a price will have to be paid for any access to the single market and for the divorce. If the EU sticks to the hardline stances it currently advertises, it is the EU rather than May who will force a hard and early Brexit – before negotiations start or by cutting them rudely short. And as to those negotiations, there are sceptical questions to be asked about May’s own competences and those of her team of negotiators.
As counterpoints to all of that, which may see her premiership crash and burn, there are these considerations. WTO rules of trade (the consequence of a hard Brexit) cut both ways, not altogether to the EU’s advantage. Germany and France may be willing enough to live with the consequences, others less so: notwithstanding the truth that Britain needs access to the single market much more than the EU needs access to the British market. A divorce settlement and its costs cannot be neatly decoupled from talk and some progress towards new terms of trade. Hard Brexit would itself amount to new terms of trade and such that Britain might walk away from any debts and ongoing obligations.
May has evidently enough accepted that there can’t be a neat wrap-up by 2019, that at most outlines and guidelines can be put in place by then, with an extended transition period thereafter. In her speech at the launch of the Tory manifesto, she put great emphasis on the importance of what can be achieved over the next five years, not two. If there are to be meaningful negotiations at all, it is hard to conceive of any game plan much different to the kind she has in mind.
May clearly has her gimlet eyes on the 2022 election now even more than the current one. The largely uncosted promissory notes (aka a manifesto) she has now issued to the electorate envision a Promised Land for her version of the chosen people – striving Brits – lying somewhere beyond even that 2022 event horizon. It remains a shimmering vision. Is it indeed a mirage and delusion? And if so, the question that should interest us is why this particular mirage looks likely to be so sellable on the basis of its own appeal, irrespective of the haplessness and utter confusion of Labour’s alternative.
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