Expert View

May’s speech: another curate’s egg

by David Hannay | 23.09.2017

What a weird venue Theresa May chose for her big (but certainly not her last) Brexit speech And what a curate’s egg of a speech it was: some parts good, some parts not good , and some parts missing.

This speech would far better have been made at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in just over a week, because that is the audience to whom the need to compromise has to be brought home. If Theresa May now puts on a Jekyll and Hyde show in Manchester, then any benefit from the softer tone of the Florence speech will be lost and our negotiating partners will be reinforced in the view that they simply do not know where the government stands on the main issues at stake.

Clearly recognising that a standstill of two years will be needed if going over a pretty disastrous cliff-edge in March 2019 is to be avoided is a welcome concession to reality. And the commitment to continue funding our share of the 2013/2020 budget obligations will substantially reduce the overall amount of the divorce bill. But it will not make it disappear; and the Brexiters’ not-a-penny-more demand will be sorely disappointed. Their idea that the UK should make no further contributions to the EU budget after 2020 is completely inconsistent with the Brexit negotiating papers the government has already tabled on research and innovation and on internal security cooperation.

It is good too that the prime minister has made it clear that the rights of EU citizens in the UK will be entrenched in domestic law, which sounds like a new commitment to give effect to any withdrawal agreement through primary legislation. How that is proof against the constitutional doctrine that one parliament cannot bind the hands of another is, however, a bit of a mystery.

What about the bad? Well anyone who voted Remain will be unlikely to be happy about the unqualified majoritarian view Theresa May took of Britain’s whole period of membership. Is it really tolerable to treat the views expressed by 37% of the electorate on 23 June 2016 as the tablets of Moses? The same does not seem to apply to the 2/3 of those who voted to remain in the European Communities in the 1975 referendum.

And then there are the missing parts, most notably the absence of any clarity about the government’s desired end-state for our trading relationship with far and away the biggest market for our goods and services. The reiterated ruling out of both a customs union and a single market solution – and the smokescreen laid down over the alternatives – means that this is no more a transition phase than it is an implementation phase. It is simply the postponement of a cliff-edge.

The case for going into the negotiations for a new partnership with all options, including a customs union and a single market, on the table remains a compelling one. That the government continues to reject that approach speaks volumes about the dissension within its own ranks.

Will this speech make it more likely that the negotiations on a new partnership can begin after the European Council meeting in October? Slightly, perhaps; but after the December meeting is still a better bet. Much will depend on whether David Davis is able to fill out the details of the shifts in the government’s position set out in Florence in a clear and convincing manner. In particular it really is high time to settle the issues relating to the future status of the EU citizens living and working here and of our compatriots across the rest of Europe if we are not to see a continuing and damaging exodus of people who make a real contribution to our economy.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon