Beltway Briefing

The top stories from US politics today.

Tina Brown is working her magic on Newsweek. After last week's "Diana at 50" piece, in which Brown asked what the world would be like if Diana hadn't died in 1997 (The answer? Better, as it would be a world without Brown's "Diana at 50" piece and the terrible accompanying photoshop), Brown has this week splashed with a literally glowing picture of Sarah Palin. Last year, Newsweek ran a cover showing a scantily dressed Palin about to go running (perhaps because she was running for vice president, not because she had a good pair of pins). This time, it's slightly less sexist. But would a male politician be photographed in the same way? Actually, scratch that. Would a serious politician be photographed in this way? I doubt that Newsweek will do a glossy Tim Pawlenty photo gallery.

Newsweek

Away from Palin's pretty face, the Newsweek interview was enthralling, as anything to do with Palin generally is. Palin laid down a pretty thick hint that she may run. Discussing the fact that she is often brought up as a potential candidate (along with Gov Rick Perry of Texas), Palin says:

"It suggests that the field is not set. Thank goodness the field is not yet set. I think that there does need to be more vigorous debate. There needs to be a larger field. And there's still time. There's still months ahead, where more folks can jump in and start articulating their positions."

Oh, Palin, you tease.

Bachmann Bingo has taken a strange twist. Beltway Briefing readers will be aware of the frequency with which Bachmann mentions a few key facts about herself - and if she mentions all four ("five children", "23 foster children", "tax lawyer", "tea party") in one go, it's bingo! One of the four tenets of Bachmann Bingo, however, has come under scrutiny. Bachmann protrays herself as a warrior for low taxes, via her past as a tax lawyer. She was indeed a tax lawyer, but - according to the National Journal - she worked for the Inland Revenue Service from 1988 and 1993. Rather than helping citizens avoid paying their taxes she was - deep breath - collecting taxes. Oops. How this will go down with her anti-tax base will be interesting to watch.

$134,000,000,000. Remember that figure because you will be hearing it a lot in the next few months. $134bn is the hit that the US economy will take if the US government fails to agree on an increase in the US debt ceiling by 2 August, according to Jay Powell, who served as undersecretary of the Treasury in George H.W. Bush's administration and who authored a comprehensive study on the topic. If it happens, voters will blame someone - whether it will be Congress or the President who bears the brunt of voter annoyance, however, remains to be seen.

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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.