Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. The sad record of fiscal austerity (Financial Times)

The ECB could have prevented the panic, says Martin Wolf. Tens of millions are now suffering unnecessarily.

2. The Lib Dems are not a serious national party (Times) (£)

Forget who said what to whom, says Daniel Finkelstein. Nick Clegg has failed to lead his MPs away from interest-group politics.

3. George Osborne hasn't just failed – this is an economic disaster (Guardian)

Coalition austerity has delivered depression and a lost decade, says Seumas Milne. Labour has to avoid locking itself into more of the same.

4. If Nick Clegg’s story won’t stand up, the Lord Rennard scandal could finish him (Daily Telegraph)

Even victory at the Eastleigh by-election will not put an end to the Liberal Democrat leader’s troubles, writes Mary Riddell.

5. Beppe Grillo's antics may yet shake the whole European system (Guardian)

From Italy to Eastleigh, the economics of self-flagellation have set off a wave of wildcat populism, with unpredictable results, writes Simon Jenkins.

6. Negative interest rates mean more pain for savers (Independent)

This suggestion by Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, may sound shocking, but it's a technical device, writes Hamish McRae.

7. Castro pledge is chance for change (Financial Times)

Lifting US constraints on Cuba will speed the regime’s demise, says an FT editorial.

8. Discarding Trident would not aid global nuclear disarmament; it would only imperil UK security (Independent)

It is imperative that discussions on the nuclear deterrent be driven by national security needs, not short-term political considerations, says Lord West.

9. Mr Clegg's voting system and the comedian who's exposed what a joke the euro is (Daily Mail)

Thanks to its proportional representation electoral system, the balance of power in Italy is held by a party whose leader is a stand-up comedian, writes Simon Heffer.

10. Britain's massive debt to slavery (Guardian)

Today the records that detail just how much the trade in humans benefited the UK will be made public, says Catherine Hall. 

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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.