Even prior to the formal start of what is likely to be a long tournament, the players are taking their seats at the poker table. They’re puffing their chests, turning stone-faced, sternly glaring at each other in the eye. They’re looking at the hand they’ve been dealt and deciding what strategy to pursue. Winning does not depend on having a strong hand but rather on persuading your opponent that you do.
And so, as Theresa May delivered the final few sentences of her speech on her plan for Brexit, the thinly veiled threat was issued: “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
The tone of what followed was equally unambiguous: should the EU pursue a punitive course of action in striking an agreement, the UK would simply walk away. It would relentlessly and ruthlessly seek opportunities across the wider world, and the EU would be the one to ultimately suffer for it.
This is because, as the Prime Minister repeatedly stated, she wants what is best for Britain.
Is that the tone that one would expect from what she claimed the UK to be: Europe’s “ally”, “partner” and “friend”? Is such a threat the way to earn the goodwill of officials in Brussels and politicians in Europe’s capitals for establishing a new relationship between equal partners? What did Theresa May think she was achieving by being so defiant?
As has been observed, the speech was aimed mainly at shoring up domestic support. So, May’s first goal was to secure her position as Prime Minister and as leader of her party, to silence the domestic critics of her indecisiveness and to quell the menace of UKIP.
The strident tone of the final part of her speech, while confrontational, was nevertheless entirely consistent with what preceded it. The Prime Minister has decisively chosen the hard option of taking the UK out of the EU (if only to bring it somewhat back in), rather than the soft option of keeping the country in the EU (if only to take it somewhat out).
Given European leaders’ resolute commitment to maintaining the unity of the four freedoms, leaving the single market was the only option left to her if she was going to keep her pledge to recover control over immigration.
In justifying this choice, May appealed to traditional Tory values: democracy, sovereignty, self-determination and national interest. She uttered the last two words no less than 18 times. If Britain is to reassert control over its borders, decide its own laws and free itself from the fetters of the European Court of Justice, it must leave the single market.
The primacy assigned to these values reflects her respect for the revealed preferences of the majority that voted to leave the EU in the referendum. And it was in keeping with the tone of the Leave side during the campaign and with the tough-sounding rhetoric that came out of the Conservative party conference last autumn.
The Prime Minister embellished the framing of these values and principles with a romantic vision of a global Britain that harked back to the age of Britannia ruling the waves. In redefining its image and purpose, the UK was cast as the fearless buccaneering nation of yesteryear, seeking new ties and opportunities wherever it could find them, but mainly among its distant former colonies: India, the US, Canada, and the Antipodes.
The UK was not going to turn inwards, but rather outwards, as a cosmopolitan champion of free trade. But it was going to do so on its own terms.
The end game
This tone makes sense, if we appreciate that what the Prime Minister was doing in this speech was, above all, making an opening gambit in the round of forthcoming negotiations about the new kind of relationship that the UK forges with the EU.
What is at stake here is not just the terms of Brexit, but what follows from it.
And, contrary to her European counterparts, May wants the two discussions to be held in parallel, to ensure certainty for British business. In these negotiations, she is eager to emphasise the UK’s relative standing. Indeed, what she is seeking is an “equal” partnership.
What she wants from the negotiations is clear: a free trade agreement with the EU, possibly with some kind of common customs arrangement in certain sectors. What she is bringing to the table in return is equally clear: the economic benefits of continued free trade with the UK that accrues to the EU, plus the perks of cooperation that the UK can offer in the types of activities it is very good at, including defence, security and intelligence on the one hand, and science, research and innovation on the other.
But, if the UK has so much to offer, what explains the strident posturing?
Part of the reason is the predictable attempt at pointing to an even power relationship between two parties prior to a negotiation – in this instance, in terms of their mutual exposure to trade, to warn the EU against using its size and numerical clout as a source of leverage.
The deeper reason is the fear of the “cliff-edge” felt by British business and the British government: the sudden exit from the single market without a negotiated alternative or interim solution, after which the UK would fall into a kind of trade and regulatory no-man’s land.
The tone adopted by the Prime Minister was shaped by the hardening of positions on this question in Brussels, in particular by Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator.
He warned that any transition deal would be short and would likely see the maintenance of the status quo. That means the UK would continue to be subject to single market regulations, contributions to the EU budget and ECJ jurisprudence, something unpalatable to Conservative eurosceptics. Instead, what the Prime Minister wants is to tie the interim solution to preliminary talks on a future FTA, something equally unpalatable to the EU.
Brinkmanship is to be expected in such high stakes negotiations if players are so far apart in their position. By threatening to walk away from the imposition of an interim arrangement, she was following a classical approach in any negotiation: take everything you can, concede nothing and ultimately to settle somewhere in between. And from the start, let your counterpart believe that walking away is always preferable to an undesirable outcome, especially if something as emotional as national pride is at stake.
British business will be hoping that, by shrouding herself in the Union Jack, Theresa May has not overplayed her hand.