When the Prime Minister visited the Gulf states last December, she was widely mocked for refusing to be pinned down on any kind of current Brexit model and calling for a “Red, White and Blue” Brexit deal. Despite the phrasing — and let’s face it, some of the backlash against the phrase came from people who don’t wan the notions of patriotism to be found anywhere — there was in fact a deeper meaning to Theresa May’s rather colourful statement. That meaning was confirmed later in the Lancaster House speech, and once again in the hotly anticipated speech from the Prime Minister in Florence, Italy.
‘Red, White and Blue Brexit’ has become more than a catchphrase: it is now May’s official negotiating position.
Theresa May, specifically and analytically, ruled out both a ‘CETA’ model and a ‘Norway’ model for the UK’s future relationship with Brussels post-Brexit. Describing the Norway model of lacking in democratic accountability that would leave it unacceptable to the majority of British people that “have never really felt at home in the European Union” and that “such a loss of democratic control could not work for the British people”, May has categorically ruled out and re-enforced her red lines on the Single Market and Customs Union, while her description of CETA as starting from a completely different point than what we currently have, with identical regulatory regimes and taking years to negotiate, is accurate and shows the Government desire for something else.
That is true, also, of the transitional period that No.10 now accepts will be necessary to the Brexit process. Rather than looking to EFTA or the Norway option for a transition deal, the Government wants ‘Market Access’ to continue but refuses to suggest a precedent for how that should be achieved. Instead, May simply supported the continuation of the economic status quo, though laid no way that regulatory disputes could be settled and divergence could be avoided, unless the ECJ and other bodies continue to apply throughout the transitional period.
Softer voices like Ruth Davidson, Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond may have got their own way on the issue of that transition, but the Government position is still far from that of a ‘soft Brexit’. Leaving the Single Market and Customs Union are still at the forefront of the Government’s policy, as they have been for several months — that is a position that until recently was the majority of politicians at Westminster, before Labour’s u-turn. Some have described the transitional arrangements as a way to delay of curtail the Brexit process, when in reality it is a recognition that the Government needs more time to develop and implement the new arrangements of the Brexit deal in areas including customs and immigration regimes, as well as to come to final deal.
The transitional arrangement is a recognition that the Government wants a lasting deal with the European Union, not one that is rushed through for ratification and must be revisited regularly because of its faults. A transition is both the friend of Remainers, who fear a quick exit, and of Leavers, who need their decision justified ever still and the opportunity to show that a new and lasting future relationship is possible with the European Union.
March of the softies?
This speech did, however, show the influence of softer voices on Brexit and how the voices of the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson are still side-lined. While the Treasury and Home Secretary desired a five year long transitional arrangement to ensure the longest possible period of stability, few will curl their noses at May’s proposed two year session of total economic and judicial continuity with Europe. The continuation of Freedom of Movement will also give Amber Rudd’s Home Office more time to plan and debate future immigration law and for the Department for International Trade to come up with a full agenda of future trade deals, and moving current EU trade deals over into bilateral agreements.
Not so long ago, however, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson were both vigorously opposed to any transitional deal. It is well known that not releasing ‘£350 million a week’ will taint Boris Johnson as a liar for years to come and distinguish the flame of the Foreign Secretary’s remaining leadership hopes. The stark lack of influence that Johnson and other ‘hard Brexiteers’ now exhibit over Theresa May was apparent in this speech: the consolatory approach that the speech symbolised was very much more Hammond and his slow approach than it was Johnson’s classical liberal approach.
It’s also telling that after a week of noise from the Foreign Secretary that little of his white noise was incorporated into the speech. There was no demand for no more EU payments after 2019; no demand for free trade deals as soon as Big Ben hits midnight on the 29th March, no promise to immediately end the jurisdiction of the European Courts nor Freedom of Movement. May is taking on the advice of Rudd, Davidson and Hammond much more than she is that of the people that actually campaigned for Brexit. Johnson, in particular, seems to have no influence (as I’ve discussed more here).
The tone and principles of this speech received positive reviews from many in the EU, including Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. What is clear is that the Government is on a slow and steady path of a climb down from the outlandish rhetoric of the Leave campaign and towards a more suitable and workable position. May has recognised that if the EU must be flexible, so too must the U.K. What’s striking is the lack of influence over this move and continued process, however, is how little influence those that argued for it in the Referendum now have. What we’re waiting for now is the action that May will take to go along with this climb down and these principles.