The Prime Minster spelled out what she wants, but it's not what will happen.
(Top photo: Prime Minister Theresa May outlining her plans for Brexit. Picture by Kirsty Wigglesworth PA Wire / PA Images)
It's finally clear: Brexit will be "clean", "smooth and orderly". It won't be messy – issuing sinew and bone like a wretched wound – but precise and objective. Like a guillotine. A sterile swoop of the blade, the senseless thud of a rolling head.
The Prime Minister just finished the most important speech of her premiership and confirmed what many suspected: Britain will be leaving the single market and customs union. But also that it will negotiate for the "greatest possible access to" them both.
She added that Parliament will vote on the "final deal", and the considerable proviso that if the EU tries to develop a punitive Brexit arrangement (which it probably will to discourage other EU exits) then she would leave the negotiating table without a trade deal – "because no deal would be better than a bad deal".
The speech didn't really elucidate much, but opened up a vast sweep of possibilities. While the taxpayer apparently sending trainloads of cash to Brussels was a key Leave campaign gripe, May even claimed Britain would consider making budget contributions to the EU for "specific European programmes" but that they wouldn't be "vast".
The speech was supposedly structured around four key principles, out of which a four-point plan emerged. You can read those four points below in all their meaningful glory:
Certainty and Clarity
A Stronger Britain
A Fairer Britain
A Truly Global Britain
They're less principles and more vague, comparative ideals. The more May kept referring to them, the less sense they made. The implication of "fair er" and "strong er" is that Britain already had these values when it was in the EU. Was the point of Brexit to make Britain the same as it was before, only a little bit… more?
If there was one phrase that she kept returning to it took the following form: "I don't want [absolutely terrible, calamitous event] to happen, I want [banal platitude] to happen instead." So much of the speech was dependent on her desires (she said "wants" 44 times) that it revealed the real balance of power. What about what the 27 EU member states want? Ultimately it will be they who decide whether to make May's dreams a reality.
There was a lot of wishful thinking. It has been said that rewriting decades of EU regulations "will divert our shrunken civil service from its main duties for years". A former Parliamentary draftsman quoted in the civil service trade paper, Civil Service World, described it "as the largest scale legislation and policy exercise that has ever been carried out". In the speech, however, May claimed Whitehall will convert the "acquis – the body of existing EU law" into British law so the same rules apply "the day after Brexit".
If your bargaining chips are somewhat spectral, you'd think it would be smart not to insult your more powerful opponents. Yet May chastised the EU for "bending towards uniformity" and implored it to "respect" diversity – a bold rhetorical move for someone who, as Home Secretary, fostered a "hostile environment" for migrants.
May doesn't want to erect frontiers, real or figurative, on the Irish/Northern Irish border; she wants a fair agreement. She doesn't want to accelerate "a greater unravelling of the EU"; she wants everyone to be strong. She doesn't want to turn Britain's back to the world and strangulate its economy; she wants to be global and outward facing (while also making sure Britons aren't "citizens of the world", remember). But by mentioning these hypothetical disaster situations, and prefacing her desires with them, her speech made them more plausible.
But it's just a speech, right? Yes, but this is all there is. Downing Street has confirmed there will be no white paper to flesh out the government's strategy or give MPs insight as to what's going on. It's not clear how we'll get there, but at this point the best we can hope for is a smooth and orderly journey into oblivion
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