by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust
17th January 2017


Mrs. May answers the questions with the worst possible answers

Mrs. May has answered many of the questions posed to her by commentators before her speech today. These answers provoke the further following reflections.

  1. The United Kingdom’s self-exclusion from the single market and the Customs Union is the final victory of ideology over economic rationality. It is a particularly surprising policy for a Conservative Prime Minister to adopt, especially one who earlier this year put herself on the side of precisely this economic rationality in making the case to “Remain.” It must be said in Mrs. May’s defence that the rhetoric she has employed in her Premiership about free movement and the European Court Justice was clearly incompatible with the UK’s remaining in the single market. It may be wondered however whether she fully understood the implications of this rhetoric when she started to employ it.
  1. The Prime Minister’s speech is the death sentence for UKIP. The Conservative Party has over the past decade increasingly moved towards adopting UKIP’s policies and attitudes. After Mrs. May’s speech there is no conceivable remaining reason why any voter should prefer UKIP above the Conservative Party. Mrs. May has probably adopted the intransigent approach she has at least in part with a view to reincorporating dissident Conservatives within her Party’s ranks and possibly winning over some traditional Labour voters particularly exercised by the European question. In this unbridled concern with the interests and management of the factious Conservative Party, Mrs. May is the clear intellectual successor of Mr. Cameron.
  1. In guaranteeing a Parliamentary vote on the Brexit terms, Mrs. May has provided an excuse for inactivity until late 2018 to the Labour Party and to possible dissidents within the Conservative Parliamentary Party. She has however created an opportunity for those unhappy with her negotiating strategy to vote against the Brexit terms when they are presented to Parliament. The outcome of this vote cannot be predicted with certainty. The Prime Minister for her part may reasonably have calculated that the handful of remaining pro-EU Conservatives in her Parliamentary Party are unlikely suddenly to develop the backbone to resist the hijacking of their party that they have so conspicuously lacked in the past fifteen years; and she probably believes that the Labour Party is so divided and ill-led that it will pose no threat to the adoption of the Brexit terms in 2019. Even if a Parliamentary majority of most Labour MPs, the SNP and some dissident Conservatives were able to block the Brexit treaty in 2019, Mrs. May has perhaps concluded that a General Election fought in that year on the European issue under the present capricious British electoral system might well provide her with a new and more reliable Parliamentary majority to seal British exit from the Union.
  1. The Prime Minster seemed to envisage the possibility of a transitional arrangement, particularly for the City of London, between the moment of Brexit and before the final new point of economic equilibrium between the UK and the EU has been reached. This will be an altogether more complicated proposition than she allows. It will be impossible to conclude the free(ish) trade agreement she favours within two years and the only basis on which our EU partners might be willing to accept a transitional arrangement after Brexit would presumably be something close to the preservation of the status quo of free movement and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.  That is not a condition that Mrs. May’s party would ever allow her to accept. The threat of a disruptive Brexit remains as high as ever after this speech.
  1. A new Scottish referendum on independence has moved measurably nearer with the Prime Minister’s speech. The threat to turn the United Kingdom into the tax haven of Europe is one particularly unlikely to resonate well with Scottish voters. The perception north of the border that hatred of the European Union has led the government in London to flee into the jaws of Mr. Trump both in foreign and domestic policy will undoubtedly reinforce the arguments of those Scottish politicians contending that Scottish and English political attitudes are unbridgeably distinct. The new avatar of the Conservative Party as the English nationalist party, a role it now inherits from UKIP, is manifested in the carelessness with which it approaches questions relating to the unity of the United Kingdom, not just in Scotland but in Northern Ireland as well.