Morning Call: pick of the comment

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

1. A political fight set to reach well beyond Britain's election (Financial Times)

Philip Stephens says that the tensions within Tory ranks are visible and that the price of winning will be higher than David Cameron thinks.

2. We don't need this culture of overwork (Independent)

Johann Hari warns that Britain's culture of long working hours is damaging the health of its population. He calls for a French-style 35-hour week.

3. Christelle and her baby died at the hands of a callous state (Guardian)

Jenni Russell argues that the suicide of a single mother shows a welfare state unable to respond to human need.

4.. These plotters lacked both common sense and principles (Independent)

Diane Abbott says that the "coup" leaders spent so long in the New Labour bubble that they forgot they were members of the Labour Party. And she argues that the big loser from this week is David Miliband.

5. The supermarkets must be brought to heel (Daily Telegraph)

The big supermarket chains threaten farmers' livelihoods and must be tightly regulated, says Charlie Brooks.

6. The worth of a pint (Guardian)

Richard Reeves criticises the "new temperance leaders" for ignoring the significant benefits of alcohol.

7. May I introduce the bloody-minded Icelanders (Times)

Roy Hattersley says that Iceland's threat to default on its debt to Britain should come as no surprise.

8. They are right to ban the burqa, even if it is for the wrong reasons (Independent)

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues that Europe should follow France's lead and "rethink a garment" that cuts women off from other citizens.

9. The world must not let Sudan return to war (Financial Times)

Lazaro Sumbeiwyo and John Danforth warn that without international assistance, Sudan may slide into civil war again.

10. Unknown unknowns (Times)

A leader in the Times warns that the risk of a double-dip recession is real but that no further fiscal stimulus is possible.

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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.