Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Independent's Johann Hari say that William Shawcross's biography of the Queen Mother ignores her shameless profligacy and her admiration for the far right:

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon kept up her support for far-right politics throughout her life. She did everything she could to bolster the torturing, white-minority tyrannies in Rhodesia and South Africa, because -- as the journalist Paul Callan, who knew her, put it -- "she is not fond of black folk". Our beaming Queen Mum was Alf Garnett in a tiara.

In the Financial Times, Martin Wolf says that the Vince Cable's "mansion tax" is an excellent idea, but replacing council tax with a local income tax would be disastrous:

Mr Cable is quite right: the UK should try to raise more revenue from property taxes. But the best way to reach his objective is not to abolish council tax, but to extend it. A local income tax, by contrast, would damage incentives to work and push higher earners out of local jurisdictions with substantial numbers in relative poverty. This is a recipe for social segmentation.

In the Times, Roy Hattersley argues that it is up to Labour members to convince ministers that the party can win on a social-democratic platform:

Conferences are designed as opportunities for beleaguered leaderships to inspire the dispirited rank and file with belief in victory. At Brighton the process has to be reversed. The "floor" must convince the "platform" that all is not lost -- that social democracy can provide a winning formula. And the persistently faint-hearted have to be taught that, even if their pessimism is justified, they champion a cause that it is worth defending in the last ditch.

The Guardian's Simon Jenkins says that international summits continue to substitute grandstanding for action:

The uncritical respect accorded them by statesmen and commentators is absurd -- largely because they are all enjoying a gigantic junket. Like meetings of the G8 and G20, they are not just a waste of time and money -- they convey a false impression that statesmen are acting, rather than parading. They imply that policy is somehow being influenced by the physical communion of the great and not so good. As such they induce cynicism among those they claim to be helping.

The Economist's Bagehot column says that politicians need to stop arguing about the past and start focusing on the future:

All parties need to explain the background and evidence for their policies. But in general, as every pollster avers, it is the future more than the past that motivates voting. This is as true in Britain as it is in America. History has indeed been kind to Churchill, and not only because he wrote it; but his wartime heroics didn't save him from election defeat in 1945. Tony Blair won a third term in 2005 because, despite the debacle in Iraq, he still seemed a better future bet than the alternative.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.