‘If you want to play hardball, then believe me we can play hardball too.’
That is the speech Mrs May should have given on Friday, at the end of a week which saw the Remain campaign move into top gear to reverse Brexit.
Blair and Major, two modern-day Mr Carkers (see Dickens’s Dombey and Son), the men more responsible than anyone else for delivering us into the EU prison where we find ourselves today, fronted up this latest instalment of Project Fear. Mr Corbyn, newly aligned to Customs Union and EU corporate interests, supplied the backing track while the EU tightened the Northern Ireland thumbscrews and stretched the rack of impossible conditions. The BBC was ever on hand to aid these communications opportunities.
It should have been enough to rile the most reasonable of politicians. Not so Mrs May. Instead of the furious rebuke she should have delivered to the lot of them, the BBC included, she let them off the hook.
She set out less a vision than a giveaway list; a basis for negotiation that the Brexiteers would have chucked in the bin a year ago. It has placed Britain in a weaker negotiating position than before and the country in considerably less control of its destiny.
Don’t get me wrong. Sir Humphrey excelled himself, for it was surely he who was responsible for by far the most sophisticated of Mrs May’s speeches to date. The idea of spinning the softest Brexit that hard Brexiteers would accede to was a stroke of genius. It was a masterclass in construction – every word measured and every phrase crafted to appear to square the circle, to be all things to all men, to offer a vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU that wouldn’t tear apart her Conservative government.
The opportunity for a statesmanlike speech to put our relationship with Europe into historical context, making the real case for Brexit, was missed. How the British people have been kept in the dark from the day Edward Heath took us into the Common Market through Major’s, Blair’s and Brown’s betrayals and broken promises. It was her opportunity to make the very real case for Brexit. Yet she did not even point out that when the UK joined the EEC in the early Seventies, the bloc accounted for 30 per cent of global GDP but that once the UK has left, it will be just 15 per cent, despite the EU now comprising over four times more member states. She did not underline the uniquely bad deal we get from the customs union, nor did she point out how very bad the EU is at negotiating trade deals. The list of why we need to be out goes on. She didn’t begin it.
Rather her insistence on ‘binding commitments’ betrayed a subtle policy shift towards keeping us closer to the EU but without the benefits.
It was a speech for the political class. Not for the people. But who cared, if this most accomplished of sell-outs worked?
If Sir Humphrey banked on the Conservative Party survival instinct that seems to be coded into its DNA – that puts party and personal interest before principle – he got it right. It was her best speech yet they said. It was. For the wrong reasons.
It had La-La Land Tory Brexiteers falling into line, scurrying to endorse their leader – rallying once again round the woman who promised to deliver Brexit though she voted Remain, who is unable to say she would now vote for Brexit and who, after this speech, could not bring herself to say that Brexit was worth it; whose latest exercise in appeasement had just sold them and the country out.
Now is not the time to nit-pick though, according to JRM. No, Jacob, now is the time to call time. Weakness never wins.
Brexiteers need to listen to their opponents to learn the truth. This speech will take the UK from Rule Maker to Rule Taker, as Nick Clegg once warned, with none of the benefits.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hope that the EU will respond with ‘wisdom not aggression’ is a pretty flimsy reason for toe-ing this line.
Surely the Brexiteers want more than being able to pass the blame on to the EU if it doesn’t, or worse, when it decides to impose ‘the Carthaginian peace’ that our man in Brussels, Sir Julian King, fears it will.
Mrs May’s speech was not pragmatic. Her remarks have done nothing to make a deal more likely. Michael Heseltine is right.
The clock now ticks more quickly than ever against a proper Brexit. Time was already on the Remainers’ side; Mrs May has just bought them a whole lot more. As to the EU, she might as well have said the cake is yours to have and eat. Why else, before she’s even sat down at the negotiating table, would she concede so many key elements?
Apart from casting our fishing rights (offering to share them with the EU!) and City passporting rights to the wind, any idea of controlling immigration is receding into the distant future. An indefinite transition period looms assuring access for EU citizens and their relatives for years to come – and no end to uncontrolled asylum seeking across the EU towards welfare-friendly Britain.
And it will be Parliament, Mrs May reiterated, that has the legitimacy in making the decisions, as opposed to the UK Government. No wonder the brighter Tory Remainers were so quick to endorse her. It won’t just be the EU that will see this as the starting point to wring a raft of further concessions out of the UK.
Sir Humphrey may have pulled it off for Mrs May, but it will never be said of this prime minister that she saved Britain from the clutches of an organisation that ‘deliberately frustrates a government seeking to implement the democratic will of its people’.
She did not even make a stand.
On the morning of the speech, Gerald Warner, a former policy adviser to Michael Forsyth, wrote that it is time to walk, that we have endured the EU’s insolence long enough: ‘Britain is being humiliated and globally discredited. This indulgence in masochism must be ended. We should walk away from the pseudo-negotiations, bite the bullet of WTO trade rules and exit the malevolent European Union without further delay.’
Hours later Mrs May promised exactly the opposite.