Have you ever had to sack someone? I have, unfortunately, and I can testify that one of the things you do to soften the blow is to tell the person being sacked that they are marvellous. If you do it too much, he/she reasonably starts to ask: “If I’m so great, why are you getting rid of me?” As I watched British Prime Minister Theresa May speaking in Florence on Friday, this comparison came into my mind. She said such nice things about the European Union that it was hard to remember why she is leading her country out of it.
Her only answer, really, was that leaving is what the British people voted for. A true answer, of course — indeed the vital one — but one that disclosed little about her own position. Whenever she spoke of the British people, she called us “they”. “They” want “more direct control of their daily lives”. She? She didn’t say. This wasn’t all bad. It contributed to the obvious fair-mindedness of her speech. May seemed sincere in her respect for the EU and her belief in European civilisation. This was a good basis for the “new partnership” which she offered for our economic relationship and on security. It made her eloquent (which she rarely is) when she declared that if Britain and the EU could not agree the departure, this would be “a failure in the eyes of history” on both sides. Her speech was completely free of cheap shots. But it was also a reminder of why getting out of the European Union is so difficult. The EU was invented and is run by officials. It is the most extensive bureaucratic creation of the 20th century. So, when people vote to leave it, as 17.4 million of us did in June last year, they have almost no voice within the set-up. In the EU, democracy is not the whirring engine of the system: it is just distant noise — the shouts of angry crowds cordoned off from government buildings.
In the Brexit negotiations, this applies, very obviously, to the Brussels side. Unfortunately, and more covertly, it applies to the British side as well. If you are an official type of person, you are overwhelmingly likely to favour Remain. If, because of the referendum, you find yourself charged with implementing Brexit, you will do your best. But your idea of the best will be to replicate, so far as possible, what already exists. Neither by temperament nor by electoral arithmetic is May a strong counterweight to this mindset. So Leavers don’t really have a friend at court. Seen in this light, the Florence speech represents a narrow escape. After May’s miscalculated general election, the “deep state” recovered power. The Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood — assisted by their political spokesman, Philip Hammond — pushed her towards European Economic Area-style arrangements, which would have kept Britain’s regulations and trade effectively under EU control. Their hope was that, by maintaining silence on the subject, adverse public reaction would be warded off until there could be no going back.
This is where British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson’s intervention last week was of real service. He reminded the world that the majority had voted for something positive, and must get it. If she valued her political survival, May had to listen. As a result, although it would be quite untrue to say “at one bound, Theresa was free”, she has at least avoided being chained forever.
Her offer in Florence is reasonable. Leaving can be accomplished on March 30, 2019 before every detail is settled. The EU knows this perfectly well. After all, Britain (foolishly) agreed to the single market more than 30 years ago, but even today it is incomplete. Getting out is a simple concept, but its detailed implementation involves thousands of individual twiddles and a good deal of time. The danger is that more time gives more opportunity to sap the will, complicate the politics and leave our country in limbo.
Speaking as one would expect the BBC to do, Laura Kuenssberg interpreted May’s suggestion of a two-year transition as something which would “give business breathing space”. Kuenssberg did not, of course, say that it would also prolong business uncertainty and discourage entrepreneurial adjustment to the new, wider world; but it will. Like messy, protracted divorce proceedings, it could make it impossible for life to get better. If we are effectively in the single market and customs union for two more years, we are correspondingly restricted in reaching out for new trade deals and altering our regulations. We will also have to concede free movement — though with new registration rules — for the same period.
The May money offer is generous to a fault. Vince Cable complained this week that getting out of the EU was costing an absolute fortune. By doing so, he was accidentally conceding — which was Johnson’s point — just how much we pay in, net, each year. That absolute fortune is the sum which May now suggests we continue for two more years. The EU is desperate for our money, because its current budget runs to the end of 2020, and it does not know how, without us, it can keep up its promised payments to Eastern European countries. For offering to solve this problem by contributing till the budget period ends, the Union should thank her. The risk, in reality, is that it will turn her ceiling into a floor and demand still more.
Will European Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier recognise May’s offer as evidence of goodwill, or will he rather, in his superior, enarque way, despise her for naivete and weakness? In Rome on Thursday, he quoted Machiavelli: “Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.” How great is his willingness? Was he just being, indeed, Machiavellian? Will he give anything at all?
So far, the BBC has failed to turn on him the accusatory glare which it casts on anyone who seeks a good deal for Britain. Seen from a Leave point of view, no pass was sold in Florence on Friday. Indeed, May’s personal standing rises, especially if compared with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker’s power-hungry and bitter speech heading firmly in the opposite direction the week before. But it has to be understood that she would not have had to make such a speech at all if a good deal of time had not been wasted.
At least two questions remain unanswered. The first is about destination. May said a few things about future economic relations, but they were vague. If we enter into the proposed transition period without that destination having been agreed, we shall be in great danger of never emerging from it. We need heads of agreement before March 30, 2019. The second is about not agreeing anything. Right at the end of her speech, May confirmed that what she said at Lancaster House in January still holds: we shall leave “with or without a successful deal”. But she put the words almost in brackets, as if she would much rather not say them.
Yet no deal has to be our bottom line. If we are not known to be making full, practical plans for that possibility, our negotiating stance will not be believed. If you want peace, prepare for war. Brexit is a task of war-like intensity and effort. Instead of the non-communication and ministerial jostling of recent months, how about a war Cabinet?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017
Charles Moore has been editor of The Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph. He is the authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher.