Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. My plan to save the NHS – in the nick of time (Guardian)

All is not lost, says David Owen. We can still shield our health service from the ravages of a full-blooded external market.

2. A big play from Osborne could stop Labour hijacking his legacy (Daily Telegraph)

There is just about time between the March Budget and election day to make a difference, says Benedict Brogan. 

3. Rising populism is worthy of Nixonland (Financial Times)

At a time when elites are popularly resented, a silent majority is there for the taking, writes Janan Ganesh.

4. Why the ‘ethnicity effect’ terrifies Tories (Times) (£)

The statistics are inescapable and the implications huge: black and Asian voters are wary of voting Conservative, writes Rachel Sylvester.

5. HS2 shows that investment is not such a dirty word after all (Independent)

When the coalition first came to power, nothing much happened on high-speed rail, writes Steve Richards. So this sudden burst of energy is welcome, even if the impact remains years away.

6. A conspiracy of reasonable people (Financial Times)

If China stops playing by Davos rules, the golden years of the WEF will be over, says Gideon Rachman

7. When the rich are born to rule, the results can be fatal (Guardian)

I was schooled in a system that separated me from ordinary people's lives, writes George Monbiot. The same fate has befallen the global elite.

8. This bold vision will keep Britain on track (Daily Telegraph)

High-Speed 2 is a long overdue declaration that Britain still has ambition, says a Daily Telegraph leader.

9. High-speed rail is not the best way to spend £32bn (Independent)

With so much uncertainty as to both the costs and the benefits, this is no time for vanity projects like HS2, argues an Independent leader.

10. A welcome U-turn over secret courts (Daily Mail)

Ken Clarke’s U-turn over some of the more sinister provisions of his plan for secret court hearings shows he has heeded crucial objections, says a Daily Mail editorial. 

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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.