One of the features of British politics that is so old we tend not to think about it is that the prime minister faces towards her opponents, as if she were about to engage in combat with them.
The strange quirk of Theresa May’s address on the state of Brexit is that her most dangerous opponents are behind her. As far as the contents of the speech went, it was Florence redux, and as with that speech there was a lot of sense in there.
She made the case against the United Kingdom exiting the political structures of the European Union only to park itself in the European Economic Area. As the drivers of the vote, she argued, were the desire for control over Britain’s borders and laws, leaving the institutions only to remain subject to the regulations, particularly the most politically vexatious, the free movement of people, would run roughshod over democratic norms.
Then she made the case against a deal on the lines of that struck between the European Union and Canada, the deepest agreement yet made between the EU and a third country. That would mean a standard of access to one another’s markets that would cause economic damage to both the EU and the UK.
Her proposal? A third way, drawing on the fact that, due to the British government’s 40-year participation in European institutions, there is already a great deal of regulatory harmonisation. And, as neither the EU27 nor the United Kingdom are prepared for this arrangement, there would be an implementation period of around two years.
This was probably the most lucid the Prime Minister has ever been. Frankly, there’s no fairminded analysis of why people voted to leave that doesn’t include hostility towards the free movement of people – which rules out the EEA. But there’s no reality-based analysis of the British economy under which a loose arrangement doesn’t do damage to both the UK and the EU27, with the UK coming off far worse.
There are several buts coming, though, and they are each significant. The first is that “creativity” is becoming the British government code word for “We can’t work out a politically painless way round this”. May badly needs to wean herself and her party off this if Brexit is to be a success.
That feeds into the second problem, though, which is that the main party May was cajoling in her speech was her own. There is still a sizable caucus which bridles at two years, and worse still, two years may not be enough. Even starting from the regulatory convergence that comes with four decades of EU membership, it would be unprecedented for any country to reach agreement within the two years suggested by May. (Particularly because while the Article 50 deal is subject only to votes by the European Parliament and qualified majority voting, anything after that is subject to vetoes by individual member states.)
Two years is a very, very tricky timeframe but the politics of making it any longer are next to impossible for any Tory prime minister, let alone one who has just shed their majority three years early.
While the present government remains in place, whoever leads it will have the same problem: that their real difficulty is selling their own party on the idea Brexit might not be as easy as all that.