British politics early in March has been a tale of four prime ministers: two former ones, the present holder of the office, and one who would like to take over.
Never in British history has there been such discordance between the past, present, and possibly future occupants of Downing Street.
Theresa May made her long-awaited speech to define once and for all Britain’s relationship with Europe, with Ireland, and her own relationship with an uncompromising anti-European isolationist right-wing in British politics.
She said very little. It was Church of England polite because as the only child of an Anglican Vicar who still attends church services every Sunday, Theresa May does polite very well. She doesn’t do warmth, or empathy, or a sense of knowing the outside world or even much of the world outside her own comfortable outer London surburb along the River Thames.
But rude she isn’t. Yet her speech was mainly outreach to the English who voted No to Europe, not to a European Union that longs for some sign the UK might turn its back on the politics of close to amputational rupture.
Mrs May did not explain that the EU is what the Germans call a Rechtsgemeinschaft – a community of laws – and you cannot pick and choose the laws you obey.
The British press insist it is a matter of negotiation, but for the rest of Europe the EU is based on laws and those can be changed if all agree, but just as under any systems of law, you can’t abide by the ones you like and ignore those laws that are less agreeable.
Once again she turned to her Conservative Party trying to find words that would avoid any split.
There was no offer for Europeans. Indeed, her closest buddy on the continent, Mark Rutte, the centre-right Dutch prime minister who has hung onto power through various coalitions since 2010, went to Berlin at the same time as Mrs May to tell a conference: “Forget the Brits, the EU is the future.”
In essence, Mrs May has not deviated from her line since she became prime minister after the Brexit plebiscite vote in June 2016.
She has toned down her English patronizing tone about Europe and made several proposals which involved the UK picking and choosing which bits of the EU it might conform with. But she rejected the core principles at the heart of European integrative cooperation. These are a common set of laws guaranteeing a single market and trade policy; enforceable worker and environmental rights; and the right of all EU citizens to live, work, or retire anywhere in Europe.
That part of the British economy deeply integrated into global capitalism – there about 300,000 firms which trade outside the UK, principally to the European Union open market of 450 million middle class consumers – has been lobbying hard to keep full access.
Mrs May mentioned the auto, aviation, chemical, pharmaceutical, and TV industries, but only to suggest the EU should grant privileged access to just a handful of sectors in the British economy.
She admitted for the first time that there would be a hit on the British economy as a whole, especially in the City of London which will lose its current unfettered access to the capital markets and financial services client base in the EU27 nations.
Gone was the triumphalism of 2016 and 2017 in which a “Brexit Means Brexit” and a “Global Britain” would shape a “Red, White, and Blue” Brexit to propel Britain into the front rank unshackled from the EU to be transformed into a key partner for rising economic powers like China and India.
Britain technically leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. Mrs May has asked for and obtained a period of grace, a transition until January 2021. In this time, the UK having left the formal membership of the Treaty will still maintain access to the EU’s Single Market, its Customs Union, and obey all its laws and rulings without having any say in their formulation.
Unkind critics have said this makes the UK a vassal state of Brussels, but for most firms it will be much better to stay as an economic vassal than to have a full rupture with the European Union.
In essence Mrs May is buying a little time, kicking the can down the road. Many key decisions are being put off to be discussed in this transition period.
But can they be decided? Mrs May insists she wants a new deep trading partnership with the EU she is committed to leaving. It’s like dumping your wife or husband but insisting that conjugal rights, hot meals, and overnight stays are on offer even as the partner walking out goes off in the hunt for wonderful new freedoms and pleasures having left the boring relationship behind.
Mrs May’s speech was greeted by both hardline anti-European Tory MPs and those who opposed Brexit. She is a woman who has spent her entire life in daily social communion with activists in the Tory Party. There are 70,000 Conservative Party members – it is a bit more of a commitment than registering as a Republican or Democrat but not much more – and their average age is 71.
Their favourite movies are Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour and any film that shows the brave, battling Brits of World War Two glory taking on the Hun and avoiding the capitulationist Frogs.
These are the people who keep Mrs May in power. Her speech gently nudged them to a little more reality that Brexit will not bring in marvelous new sources of wealth and income for Britain, but she is not yet prepared to speak for the 27 million UK voters who did not vote for Brexit but only the 17.4 million who did. (The UK electorate in June 2016 stood at 44.5 million voters of whom 17.4 million voted to cut links with Europe.)
She has bought a little peace in her party and a continuing annoyance from European leaders who firmly said that her wish-list of aspirations that the UK could have its cake and eat it was not going to get off first base.
But it was not just Theresa May who made major speeches last week. On Wednesday and Thursday her two predecessors as Prime Minister, John Major and Tony Blair, made big speeches on Europe.
Major lambasted Brexit Tory cheerleaders like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as delusional. He attacked May’s negotiating red lines as “not only grand folly … also bad politics.” He added, “I believe that to risk losing our trade advantages with the colossal market on our doorstep is to inflict economic self-harm on the British people.”
It was an astonishing attack on his own party’s leadership. Major lost power in 1997 and for the last 20 years has obeyed the rule of retired prime ministers, which is not to dump your load on your successor’s doorstep.
Now the silence is over and Britain sat back at the spectacle of Major and May openly at loggerheads. Major was denounced by a Tory MP as a “Traitor” and the same accolade was bestowed on him by the Daily Mail, the cheerleader against Europe today just as it was a cheerleader for Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s.
Major was followed by his successor, Tony Blair, in Brussels. Blair also made a passionate speech attacking the delusional folly of Brexit in terms of the UK losing all automatic unfettered access to the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
This may sound technical but today from London about 85 per cent of all the foreign-made TV shows – mainly American – that can be watched on TV channels in 28 EU member states are sold out of London. The reason is that once the UK t.v. standards regulator, called OffCom, says a foreign programme meets British standards on violence, bad language, sex scenes then no other national TV regulator from Athens to Helsinki can block it.
That’s how the EU Single Market works. Now Mrs May says Britain must give up that membership of the Single Market. So a £2 billion niche industry employing 10,000 people in London will move to operate out an EU capital – probably Amsterdam – to keep that market access.
Multiply that across any number of business sectors, especially financial sector firms that have made the City into Europe’s Wall Street, and you get some idea of the potential impact of Brexit.
Blair’s attack focused on the huge dangers to peace in Northern Ireland if what is called a hard border returns between the British controlled six counties in the North of Ireland and the rest of Ireland. If as Mrs May insists Britain leaves the EU Customs Union, it is axiomatic there will be controls at customs check points on the meat, milk, other agricultural goods and any other products that are produced in the North and go into Ireland for processing.
Even inside NAFTA there are customs checks between the US, Canada, and Mexico.
But having border controls in Ireland is toxic in political terms. Right now you drive from the UK into the Republic of Ireland as one might from Maryland into Virginia. Re-introduce checkpoints because that is what English Tories and hardline Ulster protestant unionists want and once again Ireland is partitioned.
The genius of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that it ended that physical separation between north and south without requiring anyone to surrender either British or Irish citizenship.
Now in giving it to the English and Ulster hardliners who want out of the EU Customs Union at any price, Mrs May is sacrificing the Good Friday agreement on the altar of Brexit, as Blair put it.
Both former Prime Ministers are incandescent at May’s insouciance. In her speech she refused to face down her hardline Orange Brexit faction who dismissed the Good Friday Agreement – actually a solemn Treaty between London and Dublin with 140 different sections based on EU laws and norms – and instead said a working party might be set up to try to find a solution.
The man who would like to be prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, also made a Brexit speech on Monday. It was a cautious move away from his position which up to now has been identical to that of Mrs May. He said Labour could countenance Britain staying in the Customs Union if remodeled along lines he could accept.
It was hailed as a big Labour turn away from Brexit, but in the same speech Corbyn said the UK had to leave the Single Market, which still means a major rupture with Europe.
Corbyn has turned down the chance to be the champion of the 27 million who did not vote Brexit. The Labour leader hopes that some kind of crisis – either British capitalism rejecting Mrs May or her own MPs turning on her – might provoke the fall of the government and a general election when Labour could win. In the current fébrile state of British politics with Brexit as a kind of Ebola Virus sucking the life juices out of parties and government, anything is possible. All the same, there are 53 more Tory MPs than Labour MPs and Tory MPs don’t normally vote themselves out of power.
The reaction from both pro- and anti-EU wings of the Tory Party finding bits of Mrs May’s speech they could welcome is a temporary truce but as in the past the Conservatives will ditch every principle, make every necessary U-turn, to maintain themselves in power.
In any event, there is no majority of MPs ready to vote a new general election, and Labour will have to wait until 2022 probably to get a chance for power when Corbyn will be 73.
May insisted in her speech that under any form of Brexit, European Union citizens would lose their current automatic right to come to the UK and if they find work, live in Britain just as 2 million Brits use the same right to live or retire to warmer parts of Europe, like the costas in Spain, Greek islands, or the Dordogne in south west France.
So her message to Europe was we don’t want you or need you, but we will do business with you on our terms, and by the way, you can’t come here unless you go through an unpleasant immigration bureaucracy.
The reaction from Europe was firm. Manfred Weber, Angela Merkel’s closest political aide who heads the European People Party federation of all the main centre-right and conservative parties in the European Parliament, said Mrs May was “burying her head in the sand.” Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium who now heads the Liberal groups of MEPs and is the European Parliament’s negotiator on Brexit, said all Mrs May had done was to demand a few more cherries on the cake she would like to both eat and still have.
The Czech Europe Minister pointed out that the kind of free trade agreement she says she would like to conclude with the EU takes many years, more than a decade to negotiate and agree with all EU governments and parliament including regional ones.
So this is no breakthrough speech. All remains to be discussed and decided, though on many key areas the decisions will be put off until end- 2020, with many key areas being negotiated well into the next decade.
As Keynes pointed out, in the long-run we are all dead, and MPs as yet unborn will be debating Brexit long into the 21st century.
Certainly there is no major trade agreement in the world that has taken much under a decade to negotiate and conclude. So after May’s speech the dreary spectre of years of Brexit haggling and internal UK quarrels continue. It is from here to Brexiternity.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe. He was a Labour MP for 18 years and before that worked 15 years in the international trade union movement including with American autoworkers, steelworkers and machinists unions. He coined the term Brexit in 2012 and has written 3 books on Brexit.