Theresa May must be bold to retain the trust of Brexiteers

Theresa May must be bold to retain the trust of Brexiteers

Many a parent will be familiar with the experience of watching a child standing by the edge of a swimming pool, dipping a toe in the water, talking about what fun they are going to have splashing around but somehow never actually getting in.

This can happen on holiday or at the municipal baths and is one of the many tedious rites of passage that mums and dads must deal with if they have a child of a nervous or timid disposition.

There are various possible solutions – gentle coaxing being the politically correct option. But there does come a time when a somewhat more direct approach is called for, namely, sneaking up behind said child and giving them a sharp push into the water. After a brief flurry of squeals and protests, they are soon to be found splashing around enthusiastically without a care in the world.

Connoisseurs of the political metaphor can probably see where I am going with this. For Theresa May is currently giving every impression of being just such a nervous creature in her approach to the Brexit process. And this impression of timidity is doing her no favours at all.

First, she took eight months as Prime Minister before she got around to triggering the two-year Article 50 process on leaving the EU, despite David Cameron having promised it would be done right away if Leave prevailed in the referendum. Now, in her Florence speech, she has set out an “implementation period” (really a non-implementation period) of “about two years” before post-Brexit arrangements for trade, migration and the rest will apply.

Were this timescale written in stone right now – with an actual end date for the non-implementation period put on the face of the EU Withdrawal Bill – then I reckon that would be just about tolerable to most Brexit voters, even though it would mean open door migration from the EU in effect continuing largely as now until 2021. We would have some degree of certainty and most of us would, I think, be persuadable that the glorious day of actual disentanglement was worth waiting for.

But no sooner had Mrs May set out this third segment of delay (that’s eight months pre-Article 50, two years of the Article 50 process and “about two years” after that of non-implementation) than there were hints of a fourth delay. Cabinet Remainers such as Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond were reported to be already agitating to extend the non-implementation period to three or even four years, meaning that we could still be stuck in a Norway-type relationship with the EU at the time of the 2022 General Election, in which new manifesto policies could trump the pledges made for the 2017 election and during the current parliamentary term.

Cue agonised cries of Brexiteers up and down the country of: “Just jump in the goddam water, Theresa, or we are going to have to push you.”

As it is, we can be certain that powerful Remain vested interests will be agitating for just such an extension to the non-implementation period as soon as we leave the EU in name on March 29th 2019. Their intention is to play for time and try to demoralise Brexit voters to the point of capitulation by feeding us a diet of dire reports and forecasts about life outside the EU.

On the EU side they seem pretty clear that during any non-implementation period post-Article 50, the UK would have to continue making big payments into the EU budget, be subject to the full rules of the single market and customs union and to the rulings of the European Court of Justice. This would mean no dynamic new trade deals could be enacted with the sunrise parts of the world economy, there would be no scope for any deregulation of the 88 per cent of the UK economy that has nothing to do with exporting to other EU countries and no financial windfall whatever for the NHS.

In other words, this period would be perfectly set up for doomy Remainers to spread their pessimism up and down the land, destroying any optimistic “animal spirits” that had been looking forward to exploiting a great new global economic era for Britain.

So to have powerful Cabinet ministers already agitating for yet further delays risks turning the process of departure from the EU into a Samuel Beckett play where nothing actually happens – Waiting For Brexit, we might call it.

Project Fear did not prevail during the referendum, but a never-ending Project Gloom might prove a more insidious weapon for the Remainers.

My biggest worry is that the European Commission thinks it has got the measure of Mrs May. They do not think she has any intention of walking away. They reportedly dictated a key passage of the Florence speech committing the UK to paying over billions and then cynically briefed the press about this while arrogantly dismissing the concession as inadequate.

This is all wrong. I have been very much against the idea that Tory Brexiteers should seek to topple Mrs May because there is no guarantee she will end up being replaced by a true believer in Brexit and any major upheaval will be ruthlessly exploited by Remainers to further their cause (as we saw during the unnecessary General Election of June 2017).

But the Prime Minister is now perilously close to turning herself into such a lame duck negotiator that Brexiteers may end up concluding that another upheaval is worth a whirl.

Talking to Brexit voters across the East of England in recent days, I have reached the view that the Florence speech settled many minds about the Prime Minister and not in a good way. Many who trusted Mrs May to deliver Brexit back in the Spring – and hence voted Tory at the election – now simply do not think she is up to it.

If she is to win back their trust she must do so quickly by taking several steps: first, put a deadline for implementation into the EU Withdrawal Bill; secondly, specify the maximum possible duration of her non-implementation period and get every Cabinet minister to publicly support it; and thirdly, start making very visible preparations for a “no deal” departure from the EU – buying up extra land and hiring extra staff at ports and airports for immigration and customs checks, for example.

Leave won the referendum and most Leave advocates have long contended that we can only maximise the chance of a satisfactory departure deal with the EU by showing our readiness to move to WTO terms and then allowing national European industrial lobbies to bring pressure to bear on EU institutions and for those institutions to reflect on the idea of there being no divorce payment at all.

So Mrs May has no mandate for failing to test the extent of our leverage and instead turning herself into a supplicant negotiator who jumps through every hoop set for her by Messrs Juncker and Barnier, only to be told this is not enough.

At the risk of lapsing into war-time cliché, let me put it like this: the Prime Minister needs to remember the three “Chs”, that is: Channel Churchill, not Chamberlain.

It is both surprising and depressing to note that the most important good news for Brexit campaigners this month came not in the Florence speech but in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour conference speech – the part where he made clear that his radical economic prospectus for the next election will depend on utilising powers brought home from Brussels post-Brexit.

I was initially critical of Boris Johnson for the timing of his 4,000 word hymn of praise for Brexit, believing it to be an unnecessary intervention possibly connected to personal ambition. But post-Florence I can see how important it actually was.

If Mrs May cannot bring herself to believe in Brexit then perhaps she should hand over to someone who does. In other words: come on in, Theresa – the water is lovely.