May does just enough

Prime minister avoids a Florentine failure

US President Abraham Lincoln observed that ‘you cannot fool all the people all the time’. It is equally true that politicians – even successful ones like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who secured a fourth term in Sunday’s federal elections – cannot please all the people all the time.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is not a successful politician. The most she can hope for is to please at least some of the people at least some of the time, though of late even this seems beyond her. The pressure on May as she went to Florence last Friday to give what was billed as the UK’s ‘big offer’ speech to the country’s European Union partners was intense.

Two factors compounded May’s problems. The first is that her speech had to satisfy multiple audiences, both at home and abroad, all of whom have different objectives.

Her home audience ranges from those who simply want to leave the EU as soon and completely as possible, to those who want the UK’s departure to be slower and more graceful. There are those people, too, who don’t want the UK to leave the EU at all. And that is just among her colleagues in cabinet.

In Europe, May faces political leaders whose attitudes range from sympathy, to indifference, to irritation, if not worse. Many have larger problems to address than managing the UK’s departure. All have domestic onlookers to look after. Satisfying these various audiences in one speech would have taxed a far better politician and orator than May.

May’s second challenge is that the EU has set her an almost impossible task. The UK has been told it must solve three key issues: the status of EU citizens in the UK (and UK citizens in the EU); its financial payments to the bloc as neighbour and trading partner for a multi-year period; and the question of the fraught border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU state). These points must be addressed without knowing in advance what the relationship between the UK and the EU will be.

These three issues, respectively, are difficult, unreasonable and impossible. To take just the Irish question, without knowing the shape of the future relationship between the EU and the UK in general, it is not possible to establish in detail a relationship between the two sides of the Irish border.

It is no consolation for May that this is not the first time in the UK’s history that ‘the Irish Question’ has been so complex. Neither William Gladstone nor Winston Churchill, two titans of British politics, could find a solution during their tenures as prime minister.

In the circumstances, May’s speech probably did enough to keep the negotiations alive, and even move them forward slightly. There were positive statements, some new concessions – though details remain thin – and words of goodwill and even flattery for her Italian hosts. May will have noted the reaction of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator and probably the person the speech was most aimed at. He was notably less dismissive of the overtures than most in the EU and found items, such as the guarantees given to EU citizens in the UK, that he was able to welcome. It could have been a lot worse.

But talk is cheap, and details are elusive. The EU’s main concern, and May’s main weakness, remains first that the lofty ideas and offers have to be translated into substantive action, and second that no one knows whether May can deliver what she promises. She is not in control of anything. She does not control her cabinet. The cabinet does not control the Conservative party. The Conservatives do not control the House of Commons. The Commons does not control parliament. And parliament does not control the negotiations with the EU.

One speech in the fair city of Florence cannot change that.

John Nugée is a Director of OMFIF and a former Chief Manager of Reserves at the Bank of England.

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