Last month, we wrote on this site that “each side in the EU referendum debate is determined to put the best possible slant on its case and the worst possible one on its opponents’…beware of anyone who claims that all arguments in every aspect of discussion come down unambiguously on one side of it. He is almost certainly putting his conclusion first and his case afterwards, like a man walking backwards before royalty”.
The context of those remarks was an article about Brexit and security, in which we said that there are arguments either way, but that on balance those for Leave have the upper hand. The Minister responsible for keeping Britain safe from terror is Theresa May. Her speech today on the wider issue of the referendum choice as a whole might almost have quoted those words at its very start.
For amidst a choice which both sides increasingly present as black-and-white, the Home Secretary offered if not quite 50 shades of grey, then perhaps 50 shades of May. We would sum the speech up as suggesting that were immigration control the only matter at stake, then Britain should vote to leave. But it isn’t – and, in her view, the economics, the security case, maintaining the Union and Britain’s international vocation all urge a Remain vote.
But there was much more to the Home Secretary’s speech than totting up the arguments in either column. She is the holder of a great office of state. Her relationship with Downing Street is scratchy at the best of times. She is not part of the Boy’s Club – David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove – associated with so much discussion about the Party leadership. She both has ambitions of our own and likes to put an argument.
No wonder that beneath and within the score-card case that she presented earlier today were four powerful political points. The first was scarcely veiled disapproval of the way in both campaigns, including the Remain one of which she is a part, have conducted themselves during the last few weeks. “This will not be an attack or even a criticism of people who take a different view to me,” she said – thereby distancing herself from the Chancellor and his works.
The second was implicit opposition to Turkey’s membership of the EU if it comes with free movement attached, as all accession has done to date. “Having agreed the end of the European principle of “ever closer union”, it is time to question the principle of ever wider expansion,” she said. That goes a good deal further than Cameron’s own position.
The third doesn’t so much reach further as mark a radical departure. The Home Secretary has hinted before that she favours leaving the ECHR, for example in her 2013 speech to ConservativeHome. But today marked the first time that she has said so explicitly: “If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its Court.”
This is not Government policy. May’s friends maintain that, since this is a referendum campaign, Ministers have a licence to push the boat out – to communicate their own views. But Remain-supporting Ministers to date have by and large stuck to reciting the Downing Street script. They have moored their ships safely in Number 10’s harbour. At a stroke, the Home Secretary has slipped anchor and sailed off into the high seas.
This aspect of it is a neatly-timed challenge to Leave-supporting Michael Gove, with whom she has disagreed publicly before. But the speech as a whole is more than a policy challenge to a colleague. It is a gauntlet flung down at the door of Number Ten. “A different European policy,” one of its section headings declares. The Home Secretary went on to lambast successive governments’ EU policy as “a permanently defensive crouch”.
“Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown went into the Council of Ministers without a positive agenda for what Britain wanted, their advisers briefed about the five red lines they were not prepared to cross, they gave way on three, and returned triumphant claiming to have stopped the Europeans in their tracks.” But she is looking sideways towards Downing Street as well as back towards New Labour.
“I cannot help but think there would be more still in the credit rather than debit column if Britain adopted a different approach to our engagement with the EU…when it comes to the EU, Britain has forgotten how to stand up and lead”. The present tense gives the game away – not that the Home Secretary is striving to conceal it. This is the fourth element her speech, and the most explosive. It is a direct challenge to the Prime Minister himself.
On and on (and on) she goes: “We need to have a clear strategy of engagement through the Council of Ministers, seek a bigger role for Britain inside the Commission, try to stem the growth in power of the European Parliament, and work to limit the role of the Court of Justice”. This makes her support for Cameron’s deal decidedly ambiguous. She references him only once. She doesn’t mention Osborne at all. Downing Street didn’t see the speech in advance.
If considered as a leadership pitch at party members, the speech is a failure. Some two in five of them are for Leave. They will find it hard to understand why May wants to quit the European Court of Human Rights, but not the European Court of Justice. We find it difficult to grasp too, and disagree with the thrust of the Home Secretary’s case – over security in particular (though not without hesitation) and Brexit in general.
None the less, the speech is in a deeper sense a success. Like the Home Secretary’s procession of Party Conference speeches since 2010, it is a proper, serious, grown-up piece of work. It neither manipulates statistics nor rubbishes opponents. But it is not, as we have seen, without its politics. And most importantly of all, it is less than enthusiatic about Cameron’s deal. One wonders if it will end up being more helpful to Leave than otherwise.