In all its recent wild unpredictability, British politics can often be tediously predictable.
And so it was with Theresa May’s speech in Florence. Perhaps not the speech itself but the political reaction to it back in Britain. Opposition parties predictably labelled it as yet another of the Prime Minister’s string of failures. One of the immutable facts of British political life is the fact that, even if a sitting government were to magic up peace, prosperity and happiness for every citizen on Earth, opposition parties would still label it a monumental failure. It’s all rather childish.
The speech, and the run-up to it, emphasised what we all already know. That the real opposition to the government on the Brexit debate comes from within the cabinet and within the Conservative party. In spite of a weak government with barely a working majority in parliament, the opposition parties seem strangely impotent in having any meaningful impact on the Brexit debate.
In Britain, the approach to the negotiations has been chaotic, politically driven and characterised by a very public and rather acrimonious debate. The EU, on the other hand, has taken a calm and disciplined approach driven by its bureaucracy rather than by the voice of the people or their representatives. It’s not clear which is the more democratic approach. But we should consider the possibility that the chaotic British approach, frustrating though it might be, is more in line with a vibrant democracy than is the dead hand of EU bureaucracy.
But what of the speech itself? The Prime Minister has been criticised for being short on detail in her speech. That is not a valid criticism. It would be both remarkable and a significant over-reach to expect a short speech to lay out in detail all the parameters that will govern one of the most complex sets of negotiations ever known. The Prime Minister could only hope to achieve two things: set the mood music around which the negotiation dance can start in earnest; and project a sense of consensus in the government’s position.
On the first count, the speech was a success. It dialled down the hateful rhetoric and empty posturing and set a tone for a more co-operative approach to the negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the EU will respond in kind. It is encouraging that even arch unhelpful disrupters like Guy Verhofstadt welcomed the tone of the speech. We shall see how long that mood can last.
As for projecting a tone of unity within the government, that was also successful – for a couple of days. The Sunday papers are once again full of tales of disunity and threats of leadership coups. The real test will come during Conservative Party conference next week. Compared to challenges for her upcoming speech in Manchester, May’s Florence speech will seem like a walk in the park.
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