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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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