In Florence yesterday, Theresa May kept Brexit from going off the rails, and she did so by trying to make peace with Europe.
It has been obvious that there was little consensus in the Tory cabinet about Brexit. On one side was Philip Hammond, who argued for a settlement that would leave Britain in the European Union in all but name. On the other side are harder Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who want to make good on bringing back British money for British services. The only thing that has kept the Tories from descending into civil war is the fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.
This delicate political situation calls for opportunists and chancers. Ever since the disastrous summer elections, which reduced May’s Tory majority, the losers of Brexit have been planning to take advantage of any split within the Tory party, or even of its working coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party, to call for a new referendum on whatever the final deal is. Some quite openly hope that enough Leavers will have died, and enough young Remainers reached voting age, to change the result.
So there was much riding on May’s speech on Brexit in Florence. And perhaps for the first time since she took on the role of prime minister, she straightforwardly acknowledged the trepidation many Britons feel about Brexit, and she sought to mollify their fears. “The British people have decided to leave the EU; and to be a global, free-trading nation, able to chart our own way in the world,” she said. “For many, this is an exciting time, full of promise; for others it is a worrying one.”
May was certainly making peace. She did not rail at the undemocratic structure of the EU Commission, the high-handedness of its bureaucrats, or the way German interests dominate the Continent. She gave Brexit an anodyne story. “Perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe,” she said.
It is also thanks to history and geography that the EU cannot really afford to seek a truly punitive settlement with the U.K. The U.K.’s market is too important to too many influential corporate and national interests. By seeking to deter other exits in the future, Brussels would be punishing its own citizens now. May pointed out that over 600,000 Italians live in the U.K. French president Emmanuel Macron is fond of noting that London is now the sixth-largest French city on the planet. (And it continues to grow as rich French people leave France). High trade barriers would hurt the European interests who rely on the British market, and it would hurt the Irish economy most of all.
The Labour party’s surprisingly strong showing in this year’s snap election was due to the way that Labour was a safe space for left-leaning Brexiteers and Remainers.
It would also make very little sense, since the EU was able to negotiate a trade deal with Canada that eliminated almost all the tariffs and trade barriers between it and the Commonwealth. Why should it not be able to do so with a larger and more important market that is still governed by most of the rules that govern Europe?
May tactfully avoided casting any aspersions on Britons or other Europeans for admiring the EU’s political accomplishments and meaning. And while she conceded that Brexit meant taking control of Britain’s borders through a truly sovereign Parliament, she also framed it as a chance to renew Britains traditions of liberal trading arrangements.
May’s was a confident speech, but to my ears it did not manage to do what the Tories desperately need to do: introduce into the Brexit debate a new element that would begin to drive a wedge within the Labour party.
Despite his previous endorsements of the Remain position, Jeremy Corbyn is at heart a hard Brexiteer who sees the European Union as a neoliberal project and an obstacle to socialist reform. The bulk of young voters in his party see the European Union as a proud part of their identity. The Labour party’s surprisingly strong showing in this year’s snap election was due to the way that Labour was a safe space for left-leaning Brexiteers and Remainers. For as long as Labour can elide and hide these differences, the Tory-DUP government is in danger.
Because it goes against the elite consensus, Brexit is a fragile project while it remains in the hands of a divided political class. May’s speech did give it a slightly more solid footing than it had been on all summer.