Saturday 23 September 2017

Theresa May's Transitional Demand

After a terrible week for the Prime Minister, her jaunt to Florence to make the much-trailed Brexit speech everyone's been waiting fir has shored her creaking premiership up a little. This is despite Boris Johnson's 4,000 word declaration of intent and rumour he was to resign the foreign secretaryship if May committed to a transitional deal post Brexit. Well, she is committed to this approach and Johnson remains impotent on the sidelines, muttering and no doubt plotting his next hapless move.

What of the content of May's speech? The Graun have dubbed it a rare genuflection to the real world, of political realities asserting themselves over the idiotic rhetoric May has indulged since making Brexit hers. And it's hard to disagree both from the standpoint of the perceived requirements of British business and the way the Parliamentary arithmetic stacks up for a soft Brexit.

First off, pledging to carry on trading on current terms the day after Brexit officially happens will ease the jitters seizing boardrooms up and down the country. There is going to be no cliff edge. Also, the stumping up of cash will assuage EU bean counters a mite concerned about the looming black hole in the budgets, and the setting of a figure at least allows the negotiations to have some focus, with the EU perhaps being prepared to offer more concessions in return for greater future contributions. The politics of that for May are iffy and could give UKIP the populist fix it desperately craves, but seeing as she'll be out the door after Brexit (delusions not withstanding) it's something that shouldn't worry her too much. She also said that neither the Canada nor the Norway model for future relations with the EU are suitable for Britain. Again, this is a rare acknowledgement of political realities - too loose an arrangement with the gargantuan and strengthening trading bloc bordering Northern Ireland and residing 21 miles off the south coast is economically stupid, but too close and the Tories start paying a heavy political price, especially when it dawns that it no longer has a say over the single market it participates in and has to expend sums lobbying.

On EU residents, she has now pledged to protect their status in the law. But the question stubbornly hovers over what this is going to be. Will all be offered dual citizenship as a matter of course? Are they going to have to apply for leave to remain, which was suggested in an earlier speech? What about rights of travel and passports? Nevertheless it is welcome that present comings and goings are set to be unaffected after Brexit under the terms of the transitional period May has proposed. Hopefully free movement will be preserved afterwards as well.

While May's speech has had its moment in the wringer, it is probably the smartest she has so far given. Though, admittedly, the bar is pretty low. And as the Jupiterian God-king has noted, the government annoyingly refuses to offer clarity on persistent key issues - crucially the thorny issue of the Irish border. Yet from the standpoint of politics, by nicking Labour's position on the exit transition she has parcelled off the Brexit headbangers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and the treacherous, opportunistic Johnson from the more pragmatic Brexiteers in the Tories. She will also ensure the feeble rump of Cameroons are with her and reasonably expect the bulk of the Labour Party, the LibDems, DUP and perhaps, at the outside edge, the SNP to back the principle. Given the choice between business-as-usual and Brexitgeddon, only knaves and fools would jump for the latter.

The smart politics, of course, are around the transition deal. May's gambit could bind the unrepentant remainers to her. While she has offered a two-year period this will be subject to some flexibility, depending on the state of the economy, the progress of trade negotiations to replace the EU trade deals the UK is going to cease being party to, and, most importantly, the politics. Periodically a poll comes out suggesting opinion is tilting back to remain. Come 2021 the appetite might have shifted enough for another referendum and for Britain to head back into the EU. Assuming it would want back this petulant, entitled, and troublesome whinger of a member. It's a long shot, but any straw in the wind will do, and it could be enough for Theresa May to find herself in the company of some very unlikely allies.

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