I can barely wait. News has reached us that Theresa May is … giving a speech this week “outlining the future relationship Britain wants to have with the EU”. In the almost two years since the referendum, the prime minister has been promising us speeches with fresh insight. This latest is dubbed part of a week of speeches detailing “the road to Brexit”. A road we have travelled many times, and never actually includes the detail part.
The secretary for international development, Penny Mordaunt, has told Andrew Marr that the prime minister has to “put the meat on the bones” of her Brexit plan, which currently resembles an otherwise blank sheet of paper with BREXIT PLAN underlined at the top (a second sheet is full to the margins but with unworkable proposals).
Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, has continuously failed to hide his frustration with the UK government’s approach to Brexit (“having its cake and eating it”), and at No 10 last week Barnier declared that the “time had come” for the government to set out a proper position. David Davis argues that the UK’s position is perfectly clear, but this is a man who, pre-referendum, proved he didn’t understand the rule banning EU members making individual trade deals while still inside the bloc.
The farcical floundering of May was underlined at Davos, when Angela Merkel was stuck in a hellish helix of conversation with the prime minister, asking her what Britain wanted from its exit – to which May repeatedly replied: “Make me an offer.”
The line Brexiters like to parrot is that May set out her goals in the Lancaster House speech, in which she said little of substance. The Florence speech, in which May flew to the city only to stand in front of a backdrop, was similar. In fact, the only speech May has given recently which had any substance was her party conference speech, and that substance was catarrh.
One of May’s greatest rhetorical tics is to announce ‘Let me be clear’, and then follow up with opacity
It’s not exactly out of the ordinary for politicians to lie through their teeth during speeches (Hi, Boris), or drop awful jokes (Boris! Great to see you again), but May is different, in that one could watch her speeches on mute and still get the same intel. Of course May isn’t a great orator, in the mould of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – these politicians can still hold an audience without actually having much in the way of content. May’s disconnect is twofold, in that she has nothing concrete to report and isn’t an interesting enough speaker to bluff.
If the Lancaster House speech set out some aims, which it did (12 bullet points), the feasibility of many of those have since been eroded, leaving us back at square one. “The first objective is crucial,” she said, “we will provide certainty wherever we can.” And who among us would describe the current Brexit process as certain? Her absolute opposition to a hard border in Ireland, for instance, was obviously not compatible with leaving the single market and customs union. Now, to circumnavigate this, there is talk of “regulatory alignment”, which would mean that, while not binding, Northern Ireland (and possibly the whole of the UK, according to David Davis) ends up abiding by the same terms.
One of May’s greatest rhetorical tics is to announce “Let me be clear”, and then follow up with opacity. “So I say to you” precedes something objective. Even the catchphrases are meaningless: Brexit means Brexit caught on (even if Brexit sometimes means “breakfast”), but … still none of us actually know what Brexit means Brexit means. “No deal is better than a bad deal” would be easier to parse if we knew what her idea of a good deal was – one based in reality, that is. The rest of the prime minister’s speeches consist of bluster, as when the Times headlined a piece: “May to EU: Give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed”, which is a bit like the scissors threatening the rock.
Currently left in limbo, then, in lieu of any solid map: EU commissioners; EU citizens living in the UK; UK citizens living in the EU; the financial sector; political parties; and, well, all of us. It’d be great if Jeremy Corbyn managed to press May more on Brexit during PMQs, but it’s not surprising, given his own ambivalence, that he doesn’t.
Others, however, have spoken out on May’s obfuscation. Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, an independent thinktank, told the Guardian: “The longer the British delay saying what they want in terms of a future relationship, the greater the danger that the EU imposes something very narrow.” The former Labour minister Chris Leslie, meanwhile, thinks that May is “just swinging between the positions of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Anna Soubry and stops somewhere in the middle”, which is a neat summary. Soubry and her fellow Brexit rebels have not held back either.
Recently, I’ve noticed a strange sartorial quirk that May has taken to: layering coats on top of each other, which might be the result of the cold weather, but could also be protection from all the party members who have the knives out for her. It’s not quite clear how many Tory MPs have written to the 1922 committee professing no confidence, but 48 letters are needed to force a leadership challenge, and estimates have the count already in the tens.
The public need more information, the EU commission needs proper terms presented. If Brexit means breakfast, we’re truly starved.