It is putting it a bit too politely to say that in the wake of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s article last Saturday, the approach of senior ministers to the Brexit negotiations appears to lack co-ordination. More bluntly, it is now 15 months since the referendum, and high time that all members of the British Government were able to express themselves on this subject in the same way as each other, putting forward the same points, as part of an agreed plan.
Hopefully, that happy circumstance will follow the speech that Prime Minister Theresa May is due to deliver on the subject in Florence. If not, there will be no point in Conservatives discussing who is going to be the foreign secretary, chancellor or prime minister in the coming years, because Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will be the prime minister, sitting in Number 10, Downing Street, with John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, completely ruining the United Kingdom.
Having attended some 40 Tory conferences over the past few decades, I think I know what the mood of the activists will be when they gather in Manchester in two weeks’ time — which is an urge to bang some very powerful heads together with some very considerable force. They will want ministers to show that the period of negotiating publicly with each other is over, and that the time for negotiating in earnest with the European Union has begun.
On what basis can differences over the nature of Brexit — the transition, the bill, the immigration controls — be settled? I suggest the answer is what we might call “upbeat realism”: Positive and enthusiastic about the future of the UK, but realistic about the formidable difficulty of leaving the EU without damage.
It would be easy to think that millions of Britons are wallowing in gloom and depression, but in fact British people have been busily doing what they did before the referendum, with the same strengths and weaknesses. Their productivity is flat, and therefore so are wages, but Britain still attracts investment and it creates jobs faster than anyone else in the West.
If you explain to European audiences that last week’s employment figures show nearly 400,000 new jobs were created in the UK since the referendum last year and unemployment is at the lowest in 42 years, they look a bit dumbfounded. Add to that the fact that business investment has held up over the last year and they are further surprised. Yes, the pound has fallen and inflation gone up in consequence, but in the past few days, sterling has recovered a good deal of its losses, as the Bank of England seems to be meandering towards a sensible policy of raising interest rates after all.
‘An open-hearted and generous’ approach
The upbeat message, therefore, is that Britain is doing surprisingly well after all the forecasts of doom, and has a lot to offer in the future. Post Brexit, Britain is likely still to have a more open economy, with more predictable taxes, than most of its neighbours — provided it does not accidentally let in a Marxist government. Britain can be a prosperous place, in or out of the EU. But then the realism has to come in as well, including on the part of passionate advocates of leaving the EU.
Last week, the best speech delivered on all of this in parliament was by my old colleague Sir Edward Leigh. He, a long time Leave supporter, called for “an open-hearted and generous” approach to the exit negotiations, and told the government to “stick to the essentials, be confident”. The other wise words I heard last week were spoken by the head of a very large foreign pension fund, pondering whether to keep on investing in Britain over the next three years. He said: “I’m not worried about the UK in the short term. And I’m not worried about it in the long term. But I am definitely worried about the period in the middle while you’re actually leaving the EU.” That man, and so many others like him at home and abroad, is basically positive about Britain. For long-standing Leave supporters in the government, it’s worth being realistic and paying the price to get a smooth exit to reassure those people about the medium term. In return, the long-time Remainers should be upbeat about the future. If May can capture that combination in her speech this week, it will be a message around which her colleagues could unite. And it’s about time they did.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.