Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Nick Clegg is becoming the heir to Blair (Times)

The Liberal Democrat leader is winning admirers by standing against the extremes of left and right, writes Rachel Sylvester.

2. Missiles alone cannot secure US credibility (Financial Times)

Obama has grasped the superior power of economic strength, says Gideon Rachman.

3. The long arm of Plebgate (Guardian)

The never-ending police inquiry into the treatment of Andrew Mitchell should be of concern to all democrats, says Chris Mullin.

4. Why the Mail stands shoulder to shoulder with the BBC... (Daily Mail)

The remedy being widely canvassed at Westminster is an assault on freedom of expression that should horrify all lovers of liberty, says a Daily Mail editorial.

5. Why the Lib Dems are doomed to be unpopular – and also powerful (Independent)

Clegg and his party still have cause for hope, but it has little to do with the polls, writes Steve Richards.

6. Full-face veils aren't barbaric – but our response can be (Guardian)

The veil is a perfectly proper subject for debate in a liberal democracy – so long as Muslim women are not excluded, says Maleiha Malik.

7. Vote on EU will not help Cameron’s critics (Financial Times)

The polls show a dwindling of the salience of the issue – it grips a minority and bores the rest, writes Janan Ganesh.

8. Iran and the Bomb (Times)

The west is right to seek a diplomatic solution with Tehran to defuse an emerging nuclear threat, argues a Times editorial.

9. iPhone 5S: has Apple given up on innovation? (Guardian)

Once a company renowned for breaking new ground, Apple is turning into a typical American corporation, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

10. Who lets murderers out of jail to do it again? (Daily Telegraph)

The safety of the public is woefully neglected by our prison and probation services, writes Philip Johnston.

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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.