Richard North, 04/10/2018  

Of all the many things I could be doing, one of the ones I least want to do is review dancing May's conference speech. Watching the woman humiliate herself makes me feel ill. Dissecting yet more of her turgid prose is more than should be expected of any mere mortal.

Perhaps this is only temporary, brought upon by a surfeit of Tory conference, having been overly sensitised by the oaf's performance yesterday. Or perhaps it is the sheer tedium of revisiting the limited set of ideas on offer, having once again to trawl them for the ever-elusive signs of sentience.

There is one good thing about the speech, though – the relative brevity of the section on Brexit, running to about 1,300 words. The rest is of no interest, and no relevance. For sure, Mrs May attempted to widen out the framework and bring in other issues but, until Brexit is resolved, there is nothing else worth talking about in the political domain.

That said, under her section which labelled "Honouring the referendum", we were treated first to a brief dissertation on "leadership". In Mrs May's book, this is "doing what you believe to be right and having the courage and determination to see it through".

It helps of course, if you go beyond belief and seek to ascertain that your course of action is actually correct. Many a military blunder has been perpetrated by generals who, convinced of their own rectitude, have led their men to disaster. Such actions may be "leadership" in the textbook sense, but they are rarely cited as good examples of the art.

Leading us "with courage and determination", however, is the approach Mrs May has taken on Brexit – or so she says. And the terrifying thing is that she probably does believe she is right.

Stating the obvious, Mrs May then acknowledged that "we have had disagreements in this Party about Britain's membership of the EU for a long time". And, in a side-swipe at the oaf, she conceded: "it is no surprise that we have had a range of different views expressed this week".

But her job as prime minister, she instructed us – pulling rank over the pretender – "is to do what I believe to be in the national interest". Here we have that "belief" thing again, which she then coupled with her own definition of the national interest. That meant "two things". The first was "honouring the result of the referendum". The second was to seek a good trading and security relationship with our neighbours after we have left.

And that was the basis of her deal. "No-one wants a good deal more than me", she said. "But that has never meant getting a deal at any cost". Britain, she added, "isn't afraid to leave with no deal if we have to".

It is interesting how – and especially as Northern Ireland features so strongly in this affair – so many politicians speak glibly of "Britain", when the context is so obviously the United Kingdom. It is no wonder the Northern Irish tend to feel neglected.

That aside, Mrs May speaks for herself when she talks of not being afraid to leave without a deal. The rest of the nation is scarcely in a position to judge, with the consequences having been so deliberately played-down. If there is such a thing as informed consent in politics, Mrs May doesn't have it.

And she continues the trend. "But we need to be honest about it", a studied precursor to more dishonesty. "Leaving without a deal - introducing tariffs and costly checks at the border - would be a bad outcome for the UK and the EU". She adds: "It would be tough at first, but the resilience and ingenuity of the British people would see us through".

A "bad outcome" is something of an understatement – as indeed the assertion that "no deal" would (merely) involve tariffs and costly border checks. If the woman was speaking the truth, she should have pointed to the near (if not actual) collapse of our exports to the EU, and the catastrophic consequences to our economy, to say nothing of our international standing.

Such is the nature of contemporary political discourse, though, that our prime minister can perpetrate lie after lie and no-one even notices. We would need far more than " resilience and ingenuity" to recover from a "no deal" scenario. There is an argument that this is a situation from which there is no recovery.

Clearly, though, some disquiet must have reached the prime minister. "Some people", she says, "ask me to rule out no deal". She should do so – it would be the sensible thing to do. But Mrs May is locked into the "souk paradigm" of negotiations. If I did that, she says, "I would weaken our negotiating position and have to agree to whatever the EU offers".

Now she creates another false paradigm. That would mean "accepting one of two things", she asserts. "Either a deal that keeps us in the EU in all but name, keeps free movement, keeps vast annual payments and stops us signing trade deals with other countries. Or a deal that carves off Northern Ireland, a part of this country, effectively leaving it in the EU's Custom's Union".

The first – although not explicitly stated, is Efta/EEA plus customs union. The second is the "backstop" component of the withdrawal agreement. With paintbrush in hand as she backed into her familiar corner, Mrs May roundly declared:
So, let us send a clear message from this hall today: we will never accept either of those choices. We will not betray the result of the referendum. And we will never break up our country.
In what is now becoming a mantra, we then hear from the lady that she has "treated the EU with nothing but respect", and "the UK expects the same". This is followed by a tiresome little homily: "In a negotiation, if you can't accept what the other side proposes, you present an alternative".

That, says Mrs May, "is what we have done. Our proposal is for a free trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods". This is now the unnamed "Chequers deal". It's a free trade deal of sorts, but very far from delivering frictionless trade in goods.

Mrs May is only working on regulatory alignment in limited areas, stepping outside the regulatory "ecosystem". This is simply not acceptable to the EU. They have said so many times.

Thus, when Mrs Mays says, "it would protect hundreds of thousands of jobs in the just-in-time supply chains our manufacturing firms rely on" – it wouldn't. When she says, "businesses wouldn't face costly checks when they export to the EU" – they would.

She also says "it would protect our precious Union the seamless border in Northern Ireland, a bedrock of peace and stability, would see no change whatsoever". But that rather depends on what you mean by "no change". A "hard" border is considered to be a pretty major change by some.

By now, we're about halfway into her dissertation on Brexit, but it's obvious where we're going. Apart from the disappearance of the Chequers "brand" – which may or may not be significant – there are no surprises at all.

Digging in deeper, she goes for the dog-whistles on immigration, telling us she will restore full and complete control of who comes into this country to the democratically elected representatives of the British people.

Free movement of people will end, once and for all. In its place we will introduce a new system. It will be based on what skills you have to offer, not which country you come from. Those with the skills we need, who want to come here and work hard, will find a welcome. But we will be able to reduce the numbers, as we promised.

Then, at last, we get to the core – the real message of the speech. "Even if we do not all agree on every part of this proposal", says Mrs May, "we need to come together". And that's what it's all about – party unity. "Because it's time we faced up to what is at risk", the party leader says, "We have a Labour Party that, if they were in Government, would accept any deal the EU chose to offer, regardless of how bad it is for the UK".

"And there's another reason why we need to come together", she say. " We are entering the toughest phase of the negotiations. You saw in Salzburg that I am standing up for Britain. What we are proposing is very challenging for the EU. But if we stick together and hold our nerve I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain".

It really would be so nice if it was that easy. We stick together, present a common front to Johnny foreigner and keep a stiff upper lip – and everything will come out alright. It's a pity that it takes more than such a simplistic strategy, because – quite obviously – Mrs May isn't up to much more.

But, in Birmingham, she got what she came for – the approval of her party and the semblance of unity. That was sufficient unto the day. The warm afterglow might last a few days more, and then it's back to bickering.

However, there is now just a chance that the prime minister may feel sufficiently emboldened to offer a few tentative concessions to Brussels, in the hope that we can edge closer to a deal. For, in walking away intact from Birmingham, Mrs May has done something else.

She's seen off the oaf. We had "peak Boris" and he's now on the wane, taking the "ultras" with him. They've proved to be empty noise. All that leaves is for her to prove to Brussels that she has the measure of the beast and can come up with something more than the noise she doled out to the faithful in yesterday's speech.

Yet, no one here is holding their breath.

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