Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Britain's new working-class pride could be a bonus for Labour (Guardian)

That 60 per cent of Britons claim to be proletarian reflects a fear that the Tories have broken a promise on rewarding hard work, writes Gaby Hinsliff.

2. It does not really matter if Britain leaves (Financial Times)

The idea of the UK at the heart of the EU is bizarre, writes Wolfgang Münchau.

3. Obama's new team shows the Iraq lessons are forgotten (Guardian)

His key appointments contributed to the worst foreign blunder in at least a decade, says Gary Younge. Can we trust them in another war?

4. The war in Libya was seen as a success, now here we are engaging with the blowback in Mali (Independent)

Our government and media may often ignore the price of Western interventions, but in future conflicts and fuel for radical Islamist groups, it is still paid nonetheless, writes Owen Jones.

5. Tories, wear your hearts on your sleeves (Times) (£)

On social justice and poverty, the best ideas come from Conservatives, says Tim Montgomerie. The party needs to spell out its moral vision.

6. A straightforward pension scheme for all (Daily Telegraph)

The system we launch today will give workers the help they need in planning for retirement, writes Steve Webb.

7. We need a bloodbath to tame these arrogant officials (Daily Mail)

It requires a determined minister to make the civil service once more the servants of democracy, rather than its wreckers, says Simon Heffer.

8. Ignore ghosts of Eurolovers Dave...be tough with Brussels (Sun)

The greatest threat to an acceptable British outcome is half-hearted and indecisive leadership, says Trevor Kavanagh.

9. It’s transport that will carry us down the road to recovery (Daily Telegraph)

Upgrading the rail system is crucial if we are to be economically competitive again, writes Boris Johnson.

10. The battle against cybercrime is too important to be undone by Eurosceptics (Guardian)

If they come under attack from hackers, Eurosceptics will come to regret their opposition to Europol's Cybercrime Centre, says Misha Glenny.

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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.