25th September 2017
So Theresa May’s Florence speech has come and gone.
What should we make of it?
In respect of the Brexit negotiations, the speech has made little difference. The position before the Florence speech is more-or-less the position today. The only concrete proposal, that of a security treaty, was welcome but not directly relevant to the current negotiations.
That said, the speech has not made anything worse in respect of the Brexit negotiations. It was “cautiously welcomed” by EU leaders who all then added that particular details were needed.
As such, it would not be fair to call the speech a failure; it was more that it was not really anything at all.
And in respect of May keeping the current cabinet together, the speech was a success. The cabinet stagggers on for another few days, perhaps weeks.
But if the speech was not in itself a failure, the speech was about failure.
The request – which may or may not be granted by EU27 – for a two year transition on current terms is an implicit admission of the UK government’s failure to date on Brexit.
The silence in the speech on what ultimate relationship the UK is to have with the EU after Brexit is an implicit admission that the government does not know (or cannot agree) on what that ultimate relationship should be.
A year ago, in Birmingham in her conference speech, May said (emphasis added):
“There was a good reason why I said – immediately after the referendum – that we should not invoke Article Fifty before the end of this year. That decision means we have the time to develop our negotiating strategy and avoid setting the clock ticking until our objectives are clear and agreed. And it has also meant that we have given some certainty to businesses and investors. Consumer confidence has remained steady. Foreign investment in Britain has continued. Employment is at a record high, and wages are on the up. There is still some uncertainty, but the sky has not fallen in, as some predicted it would: our economy remains strong.
“So it was right to wait before triggering Article Fifty. But it is also right that we should not let things drag on too long. Having voted to leave, I know that the public will soon expect to see, on the horizon, the point at which Britain does formally leave the European Union. So let me be absolutely clear. There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article Fifty. We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon. We will invoke Article Fifty no later than the end of March next year.”
The words in bold were said six months before the notification was made.
Perhaps six months seemed a long enough time, a fair enough and plausible deadline.
But the words in bold turned out not to be true.
The UK was not ready in March 2017.
The UK had not developed a negotiating strategy.
The UK’s objectives were not clear and agreed.
But May set the clock ticking anyway.
And now the prime minister is reduced to booking a room in Florence, without a view and at taxpayers expense, to beg EU leaders, who were invited but did not attend, for a two year extension because May had made the Article 50 notification before she was ready.
The speech might have gone worse: the Brexit negotiations are still continuing and the cabinet is still intact.
But is a speech which should never have had to have been made.
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