There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224
Whatever else you think of Brexit, we are being led by powerful currents taking us far from familiar shores. Whether we find safe harbour or end up washed up on the rocks is yet to be seen.
Theresa May has grasped this. After months of silence and having insisted that she would not give a running commentary, she has delivered a speech which offers as much clarity as anyone could have wished for about Britain’s negotiating strategy. Her government is to prioritise controlling immigration and as a result she is not going to attempt to keep Britain in the single market. In her words, the future relationship between Britain and the EU will be “Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.”
Presented as a strategy, this is in reality an admission of defeat. Some Leaver ministers have spent the last six months skipping like Julie Andrews enumerating some of their favourite things about the EU that they intended Britain to continue to benefit from. The Prime Minister is obviously more securely tethered to reality and has recognised that the EU’s many statements that it would not allow Britain to cherry-pick are not bluffs. She has concluded that controlling immigration is a non-negotiable component of Brexit and is proceeding accordingly. Rather than spend months pursuing the impossible, she isn’t going to make the attempt. Instead, she’s going to cut her losses now.
While this is an admission of defeat, it is also politically sensible. The Prime Minister has called this “Clean Brexit” and a more precise turn of phrase would be “Cauterised Brexit”, burning off some tissue in order to seal the wound. This was for centuries standard medical practice after amputation and entirely applicable here.
The domestic reaction came in two stages. That night, the tabloids were ecstatic. And the next day, HSBC and UBS announced their plans to relocate jobs from London – an early illustration of how Cauterised Brexit may have major costs.
For the first time, the Prime Minister also offered some olive twigs to the rest of the EU. She proclaimed her belief that the vote was not a rejection of shared values or to do harm to the EU itself (she would do well to slap down publicly some of her more excitable backbenchers on this last point). She stated that other Europeans would still be welcome in this country.
Despite the clumsy attempts at veiled threats that Theresa May dropped about how Britain could act in a hostile manner if a deal wasn’t reached, the speech received a moderate reception in the chancelleries of Europe (less so in the European press). The sense of realism and the dialling down of the rhetoric has undoubtedly helped. While there is still an enormous amount of work still to be done even to realise the very restricted Brexit that Theresa May is imagining, the risk of a chaotic Brexit has receded quite a way as a result of this speech being delivered.
The whole effort, however, has been undermined by a major flaw that is potentially very damaging indeed. Quite simply, this speech was far too late. The timetable for Brexit is demanding and Theresa May had long ago committed herself to triggering Article 50 in the early part of 2017. There is nothing that she said this week that could not have been said at the Conservative party conference. It would certainly have been a far better conference speech than the one that she actually delivered. Three precious months have been lost.
And it’s not as though those three months have been valuably or even neutrally spent. In the meantime, the British government has been burning its remaining capital with other European nations, insulting them, belittling them and threatening them. The mood is icy.
Brexit was always going to be a brutally difficult course to navigate. But by her delay, Theresa May might well find that the flood tide has been missed. Shallows and miseries might well be impossible to avoid now.