It was a good speech. Some have speculated that it might come to be seen as a great speech. Time will tell.
What the Prime Minister’s speech at Lancaster House did was to make clear what many Remain oriented politicians in the UK seem to fail to understand. Negotiations are two-way affairs. It is plain stupid to pretend that one side can simply layout ‘a plan’ of what Brexit is going to look like. What Brexit will eventually look like will be the outcome of negotiation between two (or maybe 28) parties. For one side or the other to lay out a plan is not only silly, it is potentially provocative in that it assumes the other side has no say in the matter.
What the UK government can sensibly do is to lay out the framework within which negotiations can begin. This is what Mrs May’s speech did – and did well.
The speech was wide-ranging – as it needed to be as the Prime Minister was addressing various audiences all with different interests. But there were three main elements.
The first was support for the EU and trying to create an atmosphere of friendly collaboration rather than antagonistic name-calling. This is an essential framework on which negotiations should start. Whether they will continue in that vein is not clear but it is clearly important to start the negotiations off with a smile rather than a frown. This is an important lesson for all hardened Brexiteers and their cheerleaders in the press. If they care about the national interest and they want Brexit to be a success, they need to take a pause from their divisive and unhelpful rhetoric.
Prepared to walk away
The second element was to make clear that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” By eschewing the single market and being, if not indifferent, then showing a willingness and an ability to pass up some kind of arrangement short of full membership of the customs union, the Prime Minister has clearly signaled that Britain has a backup plan that enables it to walk away from a deal with the EU. And herein the lesson for Remainers. As anybody with the vaguest idea of successful negotiation knows, never go into a negotiation unless you are willing to walk away. Had the Prime Minister taken on board many of the Remainers’ suggestions to date, Britain would have entered the negotiation room as a supplicant rather than an equal partner. That would have been a disastrous position to be in.
Bringing something to the party
Finally, Mrs May laid out clearly that Britain has things to offer its European allies and neighbours – from the most highly developed financial services industry to its military and security heft.
A narrow objective
Predictably, the condemnations of the speech have started. In the UK’s adversarial political environment that is inevitable whatever the contents of the speech.
Of course, we might all individually have different views. That Britain should remain in the single market or at least a full member of the customs union. That curbing immigration should not be a high priority. And so forth. The government has taken a different view – for better or for worse. However, given that choice, the task for the government at this stage is not unilaterally to outline the details of a deal. Nor is it to be ‘realistic.’ The task is simply to ensure that, before walking in to a challenging set of negotiations, it has framed the discussion in a way that gives it the best chance of concluding a deal that works for both sides. That the UK is not perceived to be entering that room with begging bowl in hand.
That was the main objective of the speech and the narrow basis on which it should primarily be judged. And for that, it is hard to fault – whatever our own personal views of how far in or out of the EU’s institutional arrangements Britain should end up.