Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Clegg must make a Left turn to save the Lib Dems from disaster (Daily Telegraph)

The party’s voters won’t allow a deal with the Tories in 2015 – it’s time to make eyes at Labour, says Mary Riddell.

2. Why exit is an option for Germany (Financial Times)

After another reminder of a miserable marriage, a separation might be better, writes Martin Wolf.

3. Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay (Guardian)

Adding further bands to this locally raised tax would be fair and effective, says Simon Jenkins. But our politicians lack the guts.

4. Talk to the Taleban or risk a messier Vietnam (Times) (£)

After November, America must offer a ceasefire and genuine negotiations, says Anatol Lieven. The alternative is savage civil war.

5. Has Mr Mitchell lost control of his fate? (Daily Mail)

It is the damage-limitation exercise that threatens to cause more damage than the original offence, says a Daily Mail editorial.

6. Modern conservatives make plebs of us all (Financial Times)

We have a self-serving echelon that believes in nothing except itself, writes Philip Bond.

7. Can Clegg exploit the gap in the market? (Independent)

The task for today is to be the voice of moderation, to appeal to the thoughtful centrist, writes Mary Ann Sieghart.

8. The coalition's phoney war is an exercise in political fraud (Guardian)

The Lib Dems play at opposition while driving through austerity, writes Seumas Milne. Pressure for an alternative must come from outside

9. Let’s break up BAE – or sell it to the US (Daily Telegraph)

The proposed merger with EADS threatens to undermine Britain’s industry and security, writes Bernard Jenkin.

10. Britain's aid promise must not be broken (Independent)

There is an obvious moral imperative, but we also act out of self-interest, says an Independent leader.

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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.