Ministers’ speeches likely to be more gristle than meat

by Luke Lythgoe & Hugo Dixon | 12.02.2018

The government is promising to put “meat on the bones” of its Brexit vision in a series of speeches this week. Its track record suggests we’ll be lucky to get even gristle.

After all, the supposed “crunch talks” in last week’s Brexit war cabinet turned into mush after the prime minister announced: “We don’t have to decide anything today.” And this week’s batch of speeches will all be given before next week’s Cabinet “away day” – which is the only time when policy could actually be thrashed out.

So don’t hold your breath. What we’re likely to get is just more internal Tory party politics and grandstanding.

Boris Johnson will kick things off on Wednesday with a speech that seems intended to brandish his credentials as a future prime minister. The next ones – from Liam Fox, Michael Gove, David Lidington and finally Theresa May on Saturday – seem designed at least in part to stop the foreign secretary stealing the show.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s nemesis, Philip Hammond seems to have been sidelined. The last time he opened his mouth with his soft-Brexit views in Davos, he triggered a bout of infighting that virtually unseated the prime minister. But just because the chancellor won’t be speaking – and neither will Amber Rudd, another leading soft Brexiter – that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.

May’s speech, on security, will at least contain a few policy morsels. She is expected to call for the UK to remain in Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. But will she even grasp the nettle – accepting that we’ll then be under the EU’s jurisdiction, so provoking an outcry from Brextremists who worry we’ll become a “vassal state”? Don’t bet on it.

The real action, if there is any, will be at next week’s cabinet away-day and the second speech the prime minister is planning to give after that.

Maybe May will then tell us what Brexit she wants. But maybe she won’t. After all, her party and Parliament is split down the middle. Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned: “If she lets us down, the letters (calling for a leadership contest) will go in.” On the other side of the party, Anna Soubry said on Sunday, in a thinly disguised threat, that if May is not careful she won’t get the kind of Brexit she wants through Parliament.

The path of least resistance is to keep kicking the can. So unless the prime minister suddenly discovers a capacity to lead, that’s what we should expect. While that might help May cling onto power, it’s a miserable way to run a country.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Ministers’ speeches likely to be more gristle than meat”

  • I think we should be focusing our attention on what changes we will press for if we remain a member, rather than pondering this Brexit or that Brexit, which is largely a waste of time. As Bojo’s doppelganger puts it, let’s be big hitters not little quitters.