From the first moment that Theresa May popped her head over the Conservative leadership parapet – that’s to say, in her wide-ranging speech to a ConservativeHome conference four years ago – her appeal has been pitched to what she sometimes calls “ordinary, working class people”. These are the “Just About Managings”: those getting by on incomes of perhaps £20,000 a year, who want lower energy bills, homes that they can afford to buy, better schools for their children – and less immigration. Such voters are to be found in large numbers in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Northern marginals that she must hold and win if she is to gain a workable majority in 2020. Last year, they plumped decisively for leave.
The Prime Minister offered enough in her speech yesterday to mollify most Conservative Remain supporters in the Parliamentary Party – for the time being, anyway. Under the terms it envisaged, taxpayers’ money will still flow to the EU not only for the Brexit “divorce bill”, but for access to programmes we want to take part in. It isn’t hard to see how this could shape-shift into payment for access to the Single Market. Furthermore, she wants implementation of any deal that is reached to be phased in. That reassured the markets as well as those backbenchers and Ministers – although, as Andrew Tyrie suggested in the Commons yesterday, it isn’t clear whether discussions on implementation will take place during or after talks on the deal itself.
The question that he asked about that specific has wider implications. There can be no doubt that May wants a deal. She is absolutely right to do so. We explained last week why WTO or MFN status, though possessing some advantages, is inferior to a good deal – and would carry with it a mass of problems which, though not insurmountable, have the potential to cause the Government, voters and business alike serious difficulty. But the stark fact is that she aims to agree such a deal within the two years timetabled for the Article 50 talks – which, in practice, is more likely to be 18 months, since it is hard to see how talks can really get going until after Germany’s elections this autumn.
On paper, it would be easy simply to replicate the free trade arrangement which we currently have as Single Market members. In practice, it will be harder to get a good deal – for all the benefits that one would offer, as the Prime Ministers said yesterday, to all concerned. The key obstacle is the affront that her core idea of free trade plus immigration offers to the theology of free movement to which the Commission and others cling. But even were it absent, Britain will not be seeking a deal as, say, a country like America might be. It is looking for one as the first member state to leave the EU since the latter’s constitution was drawn up. A host of issues arise about how Single Market access and customs arrangements can be maintained. And then, as Tyrie said, there is implementation.
The obstacles to striking any deal at all within this timetable, let alone a good one for Britain, are formidable. There is a good chance that May will end up without one. It would therefore be disastrous for her, as we argued last week, for the outcome if this happens – Britain on MFN – to be framed in advance by her opponents as a calamity for the country. The iron logic that follows is that, as we put it, a good deal would be better than MFN, but MFN would be better than a bad one. No deal is better than a bad deal. The Prime Minister used that very phrase in her speech yesterday. The proposed contents of David Cameron’s Europe speeches tended to leak in advance, and his approach was essentially tactical. May’s did not – it was briefed, not leaked – and hers is more strategic.
One of the reasons why we supported her in last summer’s leadership contest was that we believed that her heart wasn’t undividedly for Remain, and that she would commit it completely to Brexit given the referendum result. The evidence to date suggests that we were correct. At every turn, she has confounded the expectations of the Remain diehards. First, they said that she would not seek to move Article 50. Then, last October, she said that she would. Then they said that she would not abandon Single Market membership. Yesterday, she confirmed that she will. Then they sought to draw a line in the sand over the Customs Union. Yesterday, she crossed it. Now they are pinning their hopes on Parliament stopping her – or on her backing down during the talks to come.
The evidence before yesterday suggested that this would be a very risky bet indeed, and her speech makes the odds even longer. She did not have to suggest that, if no deal is struck, she will respond by seeking to slash taxes and regulation – and turning Britain into a kind of Singapore-in-the-Atlantic. Nor did she have to make it clear yesterday that she will walk away from any bad deal: one that seeks to present her, if she persists in insisting that Britain must control its EU immigration, with a punitive bill, high tariffs and services obstruction for access to the Single Market and the customs union. She could have sought merely to set out why her negotiating case is a reasonable one. Instead, she pitched her appeal as much to her domestic audience as to those abroad.
Words put to Philip Hammond by a journalist during his recent interview with Welt am Sonntag captured a mood in parts of other EU countries and its institutions. “At least in Germany, many people still hope that the Brits might come to their senses and in the end decide not to leave the EU,” he said. It could still be that the Prime Minister is presented with a bad deal and takes it. But it is more likely that Germany and Britain are misunderstanding each other, as has sometimes been the case in the past. May has squared her Chancellor. “This is not going to happen,” he told his interviewer bluntly. She has cowed pro-Remain Tories, at least for the moment. A big slice of business and the City may not like the possibility of MFN, but can now at least get on and prepare for it.
Labour is trapped beneath the rubble of its own contradictions. The most serious obstacle to the Prime Minister walking away from a bad deal would be popular unrest. But any adverse effects of MFN would be felt after she did so, if that happens – not before. If our interlocuters threaten chaos for Britain in the event of her refusing to sign up to a proposal, and her response is to say that she will neither do so – because its bad for the country – nor abandon taking back control of our borders, who are those Just-About-Managings more likely to back? Would Conservative MPs really line up behind leaders abroad rather than their own here? Would Labour – looking nervously over its shoulder at UKIP? And would not such a decision by May leave Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall with nowhere to go?
The Prime Minister’s strategic grasp can be over-egged. She did not want to be where she is now. She is not in command of events: for example, she will not have anticipated the wild card of Donald Trump. She has neither Margaret Thatcher’s mesmeric presence nor her intellectual consistency. But there is unmissable evidence of similar steel and balls – that she is ready for her own Fontainebleau moment. Politicians are sometimes represented as captains of ships, steering a course through hazardous water. May is more like a surfer riding the waves. She has a force behind her that Thatcher did not: the great wave of the referendum result that, though closely fought, has given her the biggest mandate in history for her negotiation. Nervously but resolutely, she is riding it.