Theresa May won the confidence of supporters of Brexit – not just the narrow majority who had voted for it, but the bigger one that wants to get on with it – with two speeches that cemented her position.

The first was made almost a year ago at the Conservative Party conference.  In it, the Prime Minister made it clear that leaving really will mean leaving: “it is not going to be a ‘Norway model’.  It’s not going to be a ‘Switzerland model’,” she told her audience.  “It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.”  Such an outcome would mean leaving Single Market membership, Customs Union membership, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The second was made in January at Lancaster House, where she made explicit the point about Single Market membership, and went further than she had done before in setting out her view of the forthcoming negotiation: “I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”, she said, “because we would still be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world. And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. And – if we were excluded from accessing the Single Market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model”.

In her third substantial Brexit speech, made last week in Florence, she did not resile from the positions set out above.  Indeed, she confirmed in the question and answer session following her address that she still believes that no deal would be better than a bad deal.  Nor did she cross the red lines that ConservativeHome set out before the speech on the ECJ, migration and what might be called “Norway-lite” – in other words, shadowing the EU’s economic, social and regulatory set-up post-Brexit.  Indeed, the balance of the section in which she rejected either EEA membership (an outcome identified with Philip Hammond’s view) or simply replicating Canada’s trade deal (a position nearer to Boris Johnson’s) suggested that she is set on Britain gaining its regulatory independence after we leave.

But pause for a moment over those last three words: “after we leave”.  As we say, the speech did not breach May’s pledge that “Brexit means Brexit”, to borrow her own words.  But it has cast her commitment into doubt in the minds of some Conservative MPs and activists.  This is not because of what she said about her Government’s intentions for after the implentation period, but about its plans for during it – and the interaction between both the two and a third factor: its own preparedness for leaving.

In her address, the Prime Minister said that she wants any deal she signs to have an implementation period of “around two years”.  Some will ask how one can favour an implementation period before knowing what it is that one will be implementing.  But the confirmation that the Cabinet now agrees on one came as no surprise.  Pro-Brexit Ministers such as Johnson and Liam Fox have had to concede an implementation period for the simple reason that we are unlikely to be ready to implement any deal that may be agreed.  The customs staff and computer systems required aren’t there.  Oliver Letwin lets this cat out of the bag in the Observer today.

Now consider the combination of this lack of preparedness with three key aspects of May’s speech in Florence.

The first is the role of the ECJ during the implementation period.  The European Commission and the EU27 will want it to continue as now.  And while it is evident that the Prime Minister wants its jurisdiction to cease after implementation, her view of the court’s role during this period is less clear.  Today’s Sunday Telegraph reports that the Foreign Secretary wants no new ECJ rules to apply post-March 2019.  One can see his point.

The second is the implications of any continued Customs Union arrangement during the implementation on our ability to negotiate and sign trade deals.  This is crucial if part of the economic case for Brexit – exchanging ease of trade with the EU27 for the freedom to strike new deals elsewhere – is to be put into effect.

The third is its proposals for immigration.  The Prime Minister conceded in Florence that she is willing to see free movement continue during the implementation, albeit with a registration system and, presumably, restricted access to benefits.  The difference between these conditions and the present set-up may be real, but this site would not fancy having to explain them to pro-Brexit voters in, say, a Walsall pub.

Some will argue that these accomodations should raise no hackles among Brexiteers.  What really matters, they will say, is what happens after any implementation period, not during it.  This view is plausible – although it won’t satisfy many of the pro-Brexit voters who, in the words of one Tory MP to this site, “keep asking me: so when are we actually leaving?”

However, what will happen after the end of implementation if our customs and computers still aren’t ready?  At such a moment and before it, there would inevitably be further pressure from the pro-Remain coalition to extend implementation – for one year, two years, three years, into the never-never.  Business uncertainty would increase.  And when the dust cleared, we would be in Norway-lite in perpetuity.  It is very hard to maintain that this is what the British people voted for in record numbers during the referendum of 2016.

Even more to the point, how will May and her Government be able, during the run-up to March 31 2019, to reject any proposed deal if our computers and customs won’t be able to cope after that date?  The logic of Whitehall’s apparent lack of preparedness points to her signing up to any offer proposed – however bad.  Which the Commons might well throw out.  Which would doubtless be followed by a general election, with the threat of a Corbyn Government at the end of it.  If, that is, her Government did not collapse first in the deal’s aftermath, with the Foreign Secretary and other pro-Brexit Ministers resigning.

In short, how can “no deal be better than a bad deal”, if we are not practicably able to reject the latter in April 2019?

It is not too late for the Prime Minister to recover her position.  But to do so, she must do two things.

  • She must quietly get a grip on her Government’s preparations for Brexit.  That means either putting a present DEXU Minister clearly in charge of them, sharing his work with the Cabinet office or, if necessary, reshuffling her Cabinet post-Party Conference to give such a person seniority.  One candidate for such a post would be Dominic Raab.  An outside shot would be the MP who has been driving the debate about preparedness for longer than any of his colleagues, Charlie Elphicke, who set his case out in detail on this site during the summer.
  • If talks on a fully-fledged trade deal with the EU have not begun by the end of January, she must make it clear that Britain is prepared to take a minimum WTO route if necessary, and to “change the basis of Britain’s economic model” (as she put it in January).  To take such a route in practice would, as we have previously explained, have its downside as well as upside.  The Commons and indeed her Parliamentary Party might not back her.  But the only alternative in such circumstances is likely to be a bad deal on the table – and the collapse of her government in any event.

In short, prepare, announce and negotiate – in the knowledge that if you say no deal is better than a bad one, you are in a position to back up your words.