The government starts to get real on Europe

The government starts to get real on Europe

All governments have their wobbles. Before the big one at the end of her premiership, Margaret Thatcher had wobbled in 1981-2, in the period between Geoffrey Howe’s austerity budget and the Falklands War, a time that also included serious riots in English cities. She survived through grim determination and cunning, helped by a divided opposition and victory over Argentina.

All governments have their wobbles. Before the big one at the end of her premiership, Margaret Thatcher had wobbled in 1981-2, in the period between Geoffrey Howe’s austerity budget and the Falklands War, a time that also included serious riots in English cities. She survived through grim determination and cunning, helped by a divided opposition and victory over Argentina.

Theresa May is no Mrs Thatcher and as a result of her failed election has had a bigger early wobble than anything her predecessor suffered. But even before it her premiership was more of an extensive throat-clearing exercise than anything more substantial. On Brexit, Mrs May was badly served by David Cameron and George Osborne. There had been no preparatory work for dealing with a “leave” vote despite Mr Cameron’s insistence that article 50 would be triggered immediately.

The prime minister thus had to approach Brexit from a standing start a year ago. She has not made the best of it. We advised Mrs May from the outset to slash corporation tax to Irish levels and enact pro-enterprise measures that would have boosted business confidence and encouraged foreign investment — Singapore-on-Thames if you like.

The message did not get through. The political imperative of triggering article 50 by March and fighting off legal and parliamentary challenges diverted attention from other necessary work. Waiting until after this autumn’s German federal elections would have allowed Whitehall more time to prepare for Brexit.

An early and generous offer to the 3m European Union citizens living in Britain would have also generated goodwill. Instead, Britain’s offer followed a detailed position paper from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. Mrs May, in targeting a reduction in net migration to the tens of thousands, offered a vision of little England, not Global Britain.

The wobble is not yet over, but more encouraging signs are emerging as the government is finally getting down to the business of Brexit. Mrs May, meeting business leaders last week, said two things of note. One was that she would be avoiding any cliff-edge Brexit, the other that there would be a transitional deal — what she has described as an “implementation period” — on leaving the EU.

The most interesting part of that implementation period concerns EU migration. The prime minister chose to interpret the referendum result as endorsing a hard line on immigration, despite polling evidence to the contrary. Voters wanted Britain to have control, but did not want the country to cut off its nose to spite its face by limiting the flow of skilled economic migrants . 

She is losing that argument, fortunately. As Michael Gove, the environment secretary, put it: “As we leave the European Union we will have an implementation period which will ensure we can continue to have . . . access to labour.”

A more relaxed approach on immigration is accompanied by other optimistic signs. Polite assurances from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Donald Trump’s America that they will look kindly on trade deals with Britain are turning into action. Although no arrangements can be signed until after Brexit, “scoping” talks on a US-UK trade deal will begin shortly.

Mrs May’s government is not, of course, in anything other than a weak position. The EU knows that and will seek to hammer home its advantage in the negotiations. Opposition parties know it, too, and will make the passage through parliament of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill a headache.

The cabinet is moving to a more realistic and pragmatic stance, however. It is moving in the direction of the open and entrepreneurial Brexit — the only basis for Britain’s future success — that we have urged. It needs to move further, faster

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