Aditya Chakrabortty: Reality bites – and it won’t be pretty
The era of Brexit fantasy is finally ending. For months, we’ve been told extravagant lies about free millions for the NHS. We’ve been regaled with government tosh about how Britain can agree a giant new trade deal with Europe within mere months – despite the fact we have hardly any actual trade negotiators. We’ve heard post-prandial daydreams about how the former dominions are queuing up to offer us the best access to their markets. All these are the latest burps of Britain’s long post-imperial reflux.
Today marks the day reality starts to intrude. You heard it in the very tone that May struck this afternoon, far more conciliatory towards Europe than usual. You see it in the government letter delivered by our man Tim Barrow, which accepts that a big trade agreement will be “a challenge” to deliver in just two years. Most of all, though, you heard it in the discordancy of Donald Tusk’s response. The EU council president made it clear: this wasn’t about vistas of new opportunity but “damage limitation”. Forget No 10’s carefully prepared line about “a deep and special partnership”, as far as he was concerned Britain was out the door and “we already miss you”.
The immediate response from Europe is far more interesting than the Downing Street letter. The memo was pretty much the same stuff as May unveiled back in January, bar the extraordinary yoking-together of trade with security. But everything that has come out of Europe today makes it clear that from now on it will be 27 countries versus one. Britain won’t get a trade deal with the EU anything like as good as the one it enjoys as a member of the club. The EU will try its best to stop May signing any trade deals with Donald Trump or Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull. Oh, and the UK will have to pay a leaving bill worth tens of billions of pounds.
None of this was unforeseeable or unforeseen. Nor is it unreasonable. In any deal, one side won’t get everything its own way. But we’re getting closer to the day the Brexit brigade – on the Tory backbenches, in Ukip and on Fleet Street – clock that their dreams aren’t worth a euro. Just wait for the combined rage when that realisation finally dawns.
Polly Toynbee: May could pay the price for new, softer tone
There it goes, the “historic moment, from which there can be no turning back” Perhaps. No one knows.
The prime minister struck a newly generous and warm tone: leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe, remaining “committed partners and allies to our friends”. Behind the scenes, she and her chancellor now approach these monstrously complex 28-way negotiations with more realism and emollience than anything she has said until now. Good, but dangerously late.
What of the sky-high expectations raised among those who voted for this day? Pollsters find attitudes hardened: take back control, take back sovereignty, get our country back and above all – stop immigration. Far from regret, many sound hotter and harder.
Theresa May can shift to a gentler tone, but these people will not forget she said immigration was her first priority, along with freedom from the European court of justice. What will they feel now Brexit minister David Davis says immigration might even go up – and May admits we will, of course, still accept some ECJ jurisdiction over any deal?
YouGov finds a majority expects Boris Johnson’s promised cake-and-eat-it … no free movement yet free trade but today May and Hammond admit that’s impossible. A majority agree with her “no deal is better than a bad deal” but now in her letter she rightly steps back from that.
Reckless Brexiteers have stirred deep nationalistic emotions, easily roused, harder to douse. When, after the tedious process, Leave voters look around and find Polish shops, hijabs and foreign-sounding folk still around, with nothing noticeably changed, what then? When “sovereignty” doesn’t deliver them any extra power over their lives, who do they blame? No richer, probably poorer, no more “in control”, all that righteous anger risks seeking out a “strong leader”, a truly closed border, Trumpism, Peronism, a politics of fear and retribution against “betrayers” at home and abroad.
Indeed, they will have been betrayed by wild Brexit promises, by Farage’s shocking Breaking Point poster, by the £350m a week for the NHS and making Britain great again fairytales – and how the Brexit press will rub it in. The more reasonable and pragmatic May sounded today, the more “betrayed” those who believed in her “red, white and blue Brexit” will feel. Trying to ride these two horses was a dangerous game, and before this is over, Theresa May could end up paying the price.
Giles Fraser: The new culture wars have begun
Together, together, together. That was the prime minister’s word of the day – six times in the last paragraph of her speech. Now that she has triggered our release from the EU she can sue for peace. And her tone in the House of Commons was as conciliatory as May is capable of, her face twisted into something resembling a smile, as if by an undertaker. She even attempted warm and fluffy stuff about European values. And she went out of her way to be inclusive. “Leaving the European Union will mean that our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.”
But the deepest challenge for togetherness will not be in parliament or across the European negotiating table. This last year has split the country, most acutely on the ground, between those who have felt left behind by globalisation and those who have been its beneficiaries. It’s a new political division that has a long way to play itself out, with old alliances being shattered and new ones coalescing.
With Brexit, the broad left has been pushed to choose between an instinctive solidarity with those who have been left behind and an allegiance to liberal internationalism, often choosing the latter. Which is how those who have long thought of themselves as standing alongside the poor have come to side with the global instincts of the City of London and against the decaying outer-city housing estates of the north and the Midlands, thus abandoning traditional Labour voters to the racist clutches of Ukip. It feels like a betrayal.
This new post-Brexit politics is not left v right, its now liberals v communitarians, with live-anywhere liberals being those wealthy enough to have outgrown the support structures of home and community which they are able to jettison like a space rocket’s unwanted fuel tank. There is no prospect of togetherness between those who still prefer the Ode to Joy and those who stand with pride at the national anthem. The new culture wars have begun.
Gaby Hinsliff: Pragmatism won the day
Believe in better! Theresa May appeared to be channelling Sky’s corporate motto as she confirmed to parliament that Britain has officially triggered the process of cutting nose off to spite face. Stop calling it a disfigurement, everyone! Think of it rather as an opportunity to create new ways of smelling. Theresa May is ambitious for those ways. She “chooses to believe in” those ways. All right, so she can’t say what they are, exactly. But as Maria sang in The Sound of Music, she has confidence in confidence alone. Anyone who says differently is talking Britain down.
Yet beneath the bombast, this felt like the closest May has so far come to expressing her own feelings on Europe, rather than those imposed by the referendum result. It was as if, having finally done the deed, she relaxed enough to remember that she was a Remainer once. Brexiteers know there’s no going back –well, until they read the EU parliament’s draft resolution on Brexit, arguing that Britain could still change its mind halfway through the article 50 process. So May could afford to take some risks.
She provoked both sides of the house by praising Europe’s “liberal, democratic values”, insisting leaving was no rejection of them. (It’s not you, Europe; it’s us). She promised to make Britain a “magnet for international talent” – good luck reconciling that with cuts to immigration – and warned “there will be consequences” of leaving, including loss of influence. And was that a dig at Donald Trump, in her condemnation of protectionism? Rightwing fantasies of ripping up workers’ rights were meanwhile rebuffed with vows to “maintain, protect” and even build on them.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, stuck firmly to his usual script. Once again he accused the Tories of using Brexit to downgrade workers’ rights, leaving May to point out that she’d just promised the opposite. It remains unclear whether Labour has the will, or skill, to scrutinise this process properly.
This was a speech designed to be read in foreign capitals and so perhaps an unreliable guide to domestic politics. Her promise to negotiate a deal for everyone can’t possibly be true and will soon be tested; as Ed Miliband said, national unity has to be earned, not just asserted. But this was a pragmatic, nuanced speech. Believe in better? Only if we see it.