An oxymoron replaces a tautology. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister is contemptuous of intellectuals that try to weave policies into a wider, coherent narrative. Instead she concentrates on a series of tasks, whose solutions may clash with one another. In her speech on Brexit last Tuesday Mrs May moved her defining slogan on from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Global Britain”. This last expression captures the essential idea that Britain can remain open to the world while being closed to it.
Predictably enough, the media coverage has been beside the point, lapping up the bait left for them left by the spin-doctors, without bothering to question the speech’s real meaning. Last week I said that the government’s strategy would be a hard Brexit via a soft one, with a General Election in between. That, more or less, is what this speech delivered.
The media has focused mainly on Mrs May’s stated destination after the exit process is complete. That was always going to be a very hard form of Brexit, given her insistance on two red lines: control over immigration of EU nationals, and escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is a perfectly fair interpretation of last year’s vote. Some Brexit campaigners painted a picture of a “Norway option” of Britain staying in the Single Market while outside the political Union. But Remain campaigners, including me on many occasions, pointed out that this was nonsense. Mrs May is conceding to this obvious reality. A third red line is emerging: Britain wants to be free to negotiate separate trade deals with non-European countries, like the USA or China. So one of the main points interest of her speech was her hope that Britain could have a half-in/half-out relationship with the EU customs union. This looks very hard, but we can hardly fault it as an aspiration.
But, as I argued last week, the critical issue for Brexit is the transition, and Mrs May did have something to say about this. She talked of a “phased implementation” of Brexit: in other words, a transitional deal. She said very little about this, and nothing about how long the transitional period would be. That is quite a big door she has left open. This transition amounts to a soft Brexit for a limited period, and getting progressively harder over the years. This starts in 2019; there must be a General Election by May 2020, which will be quite early in the transition process. Politicians should be focusing on their stance in this election.
The strategy for Remainers who want to put off hard Brexit therefore becomes quite plain. The next parliament must prolong the transition process and renegotiate what comes afterwards. They will be caught in the same logical bind about membership of the Single Market, but they might be able to move the talk on to eventual re-entry.
But to reverse the tide of Brexit will require a shift in public opinion, with a large block of Leave supporters put off by the prospect of hard Brexit. At the moment, though, the acquiescence of Remain supporters looks more likely. This is helped by the behaviour of the UK economy since the vote. There is no sign of a serious economic impact, and forecasters are putting off their predictions of one. The chief economic effect of Brexit has been the lower pound, and this has been doing the job that advocates of floating currencies always maintained it would. Any loss of inward investment put off by Brexit has been made up for by other money tempted by the reduced price of British assets. It may be that property speculation is replacing business development and research, but in the short term what matters is the cash. And British consumers have seen no need to save more and spend less; consumer demand is robust. The balance of payments deficit may even be easing. My sense is that summer holidays in Cornwall are selling faster than usual. Britons may be worse off, but not enough for anybody to be seriously worried.
This is something of a Brexit honeymoon. When will it end? That will happen when, or if, the costs of exit become more concrete, with job losses and travel restrictions in particular. The government will, as it should, try to put these off. There will no doubt be a big focus on protecting the British motor and aerospace industries, which are particularly vulnerable. Skilful navigation of these pitfalls could head off any serious backlash – and if they do the Brexiteers will have won the economic argument, so far as most people are concerned. That may or may not happen, but for now the endless speculations of doom from the Remain camp aren’t helping; it will the fate of real businesses and jobs that will win the argument either way.
But for the time being the focus will probably move away from business. The immediate focus of negotiations will be the terms of Britain’s exit – the divorce settlement, and not the basis of the future relationship. Probably the most combustible part of this will be the status of Britons resident in other EU countries, and vice versa. So far such media attention has focused on people from EU countries living in Britain, who have become embedded in British society. Most Brexiteers feel that they should have full residency rights, but the ability of Britain’s bumbling Home Office to design a bureaucratic process that can deliver this is very much in doubt.
Actually the more politically important case is British retirees who have moved to other EU countries (Spain is especially popular) and dependent on access to local health services. The government hopes that people who moved before a cut-off date (such as the referendum date) can preserve their current status. But the situation is not symmetrical, especially when you look at individual EU members. A deal should be easy with Poland, but what has Britain to offer Spain in return for continuing to look after a community that pays few Spanish taxes and demands increasing care costs? The prospect of thousands of British retirees coming home to use an NHS struggling to recruit foreign staff cannot be inviting.
It is with such matters that the British government will become absorbed over the next two years. It will be a hard slog, but Mrs May’s plodding, practical, task-oriented, anti-intellectual approach may be just what is required. Expect many more tautologies and oxymorons.