After an extraordinary morning in British politics, I’m very clear about my preference for the next prime minister.
It’s Theresa May.
And as I’m a Leaver, you may be wondering why. Surely the next leader must be a Leaver?
Well no. That had previously been very likely and to be honest, I had expected that to be the outcome. But now everything has changed and here is my reasoning:
- Theresa May’s speech was brilliant. She totally caught the mood and put down clear markers for where Britain goes next. That leadership thing.
- She made it crystal clear and in no uncertain terms that the country had voted for Brexit and Brexit is what we shall get. No backsliding, no wriggle room, “Brexit means Brexit”, and no second referendum to ‘try again’. As she was a Remainer, this carries greater power and will hopefully now shut up wholly irresponsible voices like David Aaronovitch, Jonathan Powell and The Economist who are looking to upend the vote.
- She stressed the need for unity in the UK’s Brexit approach— for the whole country, including Scotland, and for the Conservative Party — acknowledging that millions of people voted Remain.
- She recognises that Brexit will be a gradual process — a journey — over many years, and even uses the term “initial deal”:
- Notwithstanding all of the above, Mrs May also made clear that we could not keep free movement “as it has worked hitherto”. An interesting bit of phrasing, followed by stating the priority must be to “allow British companies to trade with the single market”. I suspect she has been watching Obama’s comments very closely and believes that initial deal will be based around the EEA model, possibly with extra checks on migration that could come from the USA leaning hard on the EU.
- Now, one can view each of these points in different ways and “choose your emphasis/interpretation”. But taken together, along with her statement as a Remainer during April (and, ergo, a supporter of the single market), it looks very much like she will be amenable to an “EEA bridge” as the “initial deal” that gives “priority” to “trade with the single market”. Let’s see what comes from Mrs May’s other speeches in the run up to the leadership election, always bearing in mind that she needs to win over a broad coalition and cannot lay out a negotiating position in public. We must therefore continue to seek out the little tell-tale phrases.
- I have long said that the EEA option is almost inevitable because other options are simply not realistic or they take much too long to construct and agree. Vote Leave refused to accept this basic point in the mechanics of Brexit, and instead chose to go ‘Full Farage’, ruling out any continuation of single market membership in increasingly clear terms, thus boxing themselves in. The appalling campaign run by Vote Leave, only trumped by the even worse Remain campaign (in which Mrs May wisely kept her head down), has to some extent tainted those at the heart of it.
- In addition, because of the widespread belief among the commentariat that the country voted for dramatic changes to free movement (it didn’t), and because Vote Leave politicians are so boxed in, it is best for Leavers that a Remainer like Theresa May delivers and ‘owns’ the inevitable EEA transition.
- Plus, at the time of writing, Mrs May’s most likely challenger looks like being Michael Gove. Six months ago, I would have unquestionably supported Gove. But because of the Vote Leave campaign and, more to the point, because of Gove’s close association with Dominic Cummings, I simply cannot. It’ll be a case of a pragmatic Brexit under May or a mad undeliverable Brexit under Gove. It’s no contest. Gove also emphatically ruled out running for the leadership on multiple occasions before and during the campaign and Gove starts out after freshly knifing his colleague Boris Johnson. Johnson’s allies are angry and looking for revenge. I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if Gove’s campaign blows up on the launchpad. And Leadsom — the only other possible Leaver in with a shout — will be no match for Theresa May.
So Theresa May, it is. Who would have thought that? Certainly not me just a week ago.
It almost warrants a newhashtag — #Leavers4May.