Morning Call: pick of the comment

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

1. Michael Foot, the most misunderstood of men (Times)

Roy Hattersley says that Michael Foot was the most misunderstood politician of his lifetime. Cast as a fey Robespierre, he was in fact a kingly and humorous man.

2. Don't be afraid of a hung parliament (Guardian)

It is nonsense to suggest that a hung parliament would produce a weak government incapable of tackling the deficit, writes Timothy Garton Ash. Most of the largest fiscal consolidations have happened under coalition governments.

3. Foot symbolises a lost world (Independent)

Democratic politics may never see the likes of Michael Foot again, writes his biographer Kenneth O Morgan. An inspirational and civilising force, he symbolised a world we have lost.

4. Labour's Foot mythology has finally run out of time (Guardian)

Elsewhere, the Guardian's Seumas Milne argues that New Labour can no longer use Foot's leadership to claim that the party cannot be elected on a left-of-centre platform.

5. The BBC's retreat may yet turn into a rout (Times)

The looming BBC cuts will not end the political debate over the licence fee, writes David Elstein. A new government is likely to conclude that at least some of the £600m saved should be used to reduce it.

6. The Tories are on a rocky road towards their sunlit uplands (Daily Telegraph)

David Cameron may have asked us to "vote for change" but he has yet to persuade us that change is necessary, argues Benedict Brogan. He must do so, or risk seeing Brown persuade us to stick with the government.

7. In government America must trust (Financial Times)

Trust in government is most important when citizens are asked to make sacrifices for a brighter future, writes William Galston. Barack Obama must hope that trust increases as the economy returns to growth.

8. We have to learn from Japan's lost years (Daily Telegraph)

The behaviour of the pound this week was a reminder that the time for borrowing is over, and that the time to pay our debts has come, writes Edmund Conway.

9. Greece is right -- Britain and Europe are letting it down (Independent)

Greece and Europe need an EU-wide economic package that stays the gathering momentum for savage budget cuts, says Adrian Hamilton.

10. Cut the arts at your peril (Guardian)

Charlotte Higgins argues that the Tories are wrong to claim that US-style philanthropy can make up for slashed spending on the arts.

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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.