Richard North, 02/03/2018  
 


If Tony Blair has a right to deliver a speech, we have every right to ignore it. It is quite extraordinary that he, and John Major for that matter, think they have any special role to play in settling the current Brexit drama.

These are two people who, more than anyone else, have contributed to the well of dissatisfaction that triggered the "leave" vote in the referendum. For that, at least, we should thank them. But they lack even a scintilla of self-awareness.

Their intervention can only strengthen the divide in UK society. Those who already support the "remain" proposition will welcome the speeches. Committed leavers will reject them. The rest of the population will be indifferent to them – voices from the past, with nothing relevant to say.

In any case, they are only performing as the "warm-up" act for the dwindling band of people, outside the bubble, taking any interest in Brexit. They are waiting for the next event of any importance, today's speech by Mrs May when, once again it seems, we are to be treated with her "vision" for Brexit.

At this late stage, one might think that we need a little more than just another exposition on this theme but, as we have come to learn, our prime minister doesn't do detail. As one of the most prominent, contemporary exponents of the "Orwellian inversion", she spends her time muddying the waters, the turbidity invariably preceded by her catch-phrase, "Let me be clear", or variations thereof.

We might have hoped for some insight into what Mrs May might say in the reports of yesterday's meeting between her and European Council president, Donald Tusk.

But all we seem to be getting is a rehash of the PMQ statement, with the prime minister telling Mr Tusk that the European Commission's draft legal text on Brexit is "unacceptable". Unsurprisingly, Mr Tusk responded with the view that "real political difficulties" lie ahead for Brexit. This, we would never have guessed.

As to hints of the content of the speech, though, all we got from this meeting was that Mrs May wants to agree with the EU an "ambitious economic partnership". Presumably, this is to go with her "ambitious managed divergence", creating the perfect matched pair. Later, Mrs May's spokesman said that the prime minister hoped European leaders would engage with her thinking "constructively".

However, before he left for London, Mr Tusk had already delivered a speech in Brussels which had set the scene for what was called a "frosty meeting". In it, he poured cold water on Mrs May's hopes for a post-Brexit trade agreement, saying that there would be "no frictionless trade" if the EU left the Single Market and the customs union.

"Friction is an inevitable side effect of Brexit, by nature", Tusk said, acknowledging the "red lines" so dear to Mrs May "without enthusiasm and without satisfaction". But, he added, the EU would "treat them seriously with all their consequences".

Preparing to wave the red rag at the bull, he also said that he was going to ask Mrs May for "a better idea" than the EU plan that the draft agreement that hasn't yet been formally put to her but which she had already rejected. "Until now, no-one has come up with anything wiser than that", Mr Tusk said.

Nevertheless. once Tusk was out of the way, Number 10 started briefing furiously on the contents of today's speech, making up for lost time. In fact, it is offering huge tranches of the text to the legacy media, so much so that there will be little left to report when she delivers it.

And once again, it seems, we are to be subjected to a turgid dollop of highly refined extruded verbal material. Whether we like it or not, we are indeed going to get another vision – more than any brace of saints, it would appear.

This one will concern itself with a UK that is a "champion of free trade based on high standards" - thriving in the world by building a "bold and comprehensive economic partnership" with our neighbours in the EU. But it will reach out beyond Europe, "to foster trade agreements with nations across the globe".

In the space of a few hours, it might seem, we have seen progress. The "ambitious economic partnership" on offer to Tusk has apparently morphed into a "bold and comprehensive economic partnership". That has to be an example of what being "ambitious" will do.

Sadly, we are not to be spared any passing cliché, even those so exhausted they must be struggling to lift their heads and grimace. This "bold and comprehensive economic partnership" is "achievable" because "it is in the EU's interests as well as ours" and because of "our unique starting point, where on day one we both have the same laws and rules". Thus, we get: "rather than having to bring two different systems closer together, the task will be to manage the relationship once we are two separate legal systems".

For her star turn, though, Mrs May is going to set out five tests. These, she will say, will guide her in the UK's negotiations with the EU over a future trade deal".

Stopping there to take a breath, one wonders why she is talking about trade deals. We have huge hurdles to overcome before we get there, and – as Mr Tusk said – we need specifics.

But no, sterile generalities are going to be the order of the day, with Mrs May recalling words she delivered on the steps of Number 10 when she became Prime Minister in July 2016. Then, in words that are doubtless engraved on our memories, she pledged to "forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world". This was to "make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us".

As to these wondrous tests, the first is to be that any agreement with the EU "must respect the result of the referendum", recognising that "it was a vote to take control of our borders, laws and money". It was, we are to be told, "a vote for wider change, so that no community in Britain would ever be left behind again. But it was not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours".

The second test is that he new agreement we reach with the EU must endure. After Brexit, both the UK and the EU want to forge ahead with building a better future for our people, not find ourselves back at the negotiating table because things have broken down.

Certainly, we are enduring, but not in quite the way Mrs May has in mind. But that leads us to the third test. The agreement must protect people's jobs and security. People in the UK voted for our country to have a new and different relationship with Europe, but while the means may change our shared goals surely have not - to work together to grow our economies and keep our people safe.

Fourthly, the agreement must be consistent with the kind of country we want to be as we leave: "a modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy". Not sparing anything, we are to be told that we are: "a nation of pioneers, innovators, explorers and creators. A country that celebrates our history and diversity, confident of our place in the world; that meets its obligations to our near neighbours and far off friends, and is proud to stand up for its values".

And that brings us to the fifth test. The agreement "must strengthen our union of nations and our union of people".

Quite what Tusk, Barnier and the "colleagues" will make of that, I really wouldn't like to think. I should imagine that Barnier has a store of Gallic expletives, upon which he can draw. Trying to negotiate with this woman must be the closest thing one can get to hell on earth. Death would be a relief.






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