Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Immigration line weakens Cameron story (Financial Times)

The UK government’s policy is economic and political folly, says Janan Ganesh.

2. In or out? It’s a question for Europhiles too (Daily Telegraph)

A referendum would give pro-Europeans the chance to win the case for democratic reform, writes Will Straw.

3. Labour's 2015 fears are puny compared to the Tories' terror (Guardian)

On the economy, Europe, tax and the NHS, the trajectory is all in favour of Ed Miliband, says Polly Toynbee. Now his party can start to dare.

4. Netanyahu: tactical genius, strategic idiot (Financial Times)

The Israeli prime minister may be returned to office in triumph next week, writes Gideon Rachman. But he risks leading Israel to disaster.

5. No one wants to be mistaken for the pub bore (Times) (£)

A tough line on Europe and shirkers may be popular, but the Prime Minister has to play the measured statesman, writes Rachel Sylvester.

6. Nothing to fear from a new deal with EU (Financial Times)

The UK should change the relationship and realign its trade relations, says Douglas Carswell.

7. Mali's Islamists are too dangerous to be ignored (Independent)

For all the difficulties of intervention in Mali, the alternatives are worse, argues an Independent editorial.

8. To understand the deepening mess we are in now, it's worth looking to the words of a Polish economist in 1944 (Guardian)

This assault on an entire social contract is what Michał Kalecki warned about, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

9. Let’s see the top civil servants on television (Independent)

Jeremy Heywood is now with his third successive PM, writes Steve Richards. He and other officials should be held to account.

10. Benjamin Disraeli can help Cameron to a clear win in 2015 (Daily Telegraph)

It is the 'aspirers’ who deliver Tory majorities – so the PM must put himself on their side, says

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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.