ANALYSIS: Theresa May fails to learn the lessons of EU negotiations past

Posted On: 
17th January 2017

The Prime Minister today shed more light on her plans for Brexit. But she neglected to take on board one clear failure of her predecessor.

David Cameron and Theresa May
PA Images

Ever since Theresa May got the keys to Downing Street she has faced calls to shed light on what she wants from Brexit. As she entered No 10 a deeply divided nation looked to her for answers following the EU referendum. She told us Brexit means Brexit. The country cried foul.

Today then, under pressure for an inside look into her thinking, she outlined her “plan for Britain”. During her 50-minute, news-laden address at Lancaster House, she confirmed:

·  The UK will quit the single market and control EU immigration

·  It will seek "associate" membership of the customs union

·  MPs and peers will vote on the final Brexit deal

·  A "phased" approach to Brexit will prevent a "cliff edge" scenario

But she saved her punchiest news line for last. In a direct threat to Brussels, May told EU leaders it would be a “calamitous act of self-harm” to punish Britain for Brexit as she warned she was ready to walk away from talks if the deal on offer was not good enough. She also followed Philip Hammond’s lead in saying the UK would be prepared to adjust its economic model to attract business to the UK if access to European markets is restricted after Brexit. 

An unguarded Ken Clarke last year described the PM as a “bloody difficult woman”. To cheers from Tory MPs at a leadership hustings, May said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was about to find out why.

Her forthrightness can therefore be viewed as sincere, and a continuation of this no nonsense narrative. The UK, up against the needs of 27 individual member states, not just a collective institution, requires the strongest negotiating position it can muster. May knows the value Britain brings to the EU table on trade, security and other matters. 

In turning the argument around, she can now also put the blame for turning the UK into a "Singapore of the West" onto the shoulders of EU officials, should they seek to give Britain a rough deal.

David Cameron learnt to his detriment, though, that threats to walk away can backfire. He said throughout the EU renegotiations that he would recommend backing Leave if he did not feel the deal was good for Britain. In the end he stood wholeheartedly behind a reform package that the British public and press thought to be a damp squib, his sincerity questioned.

May’s rehashing of Cameron’s pledge to walk raises a number of issues. One, it allows Brexiteers, who have been well nourished by the PM today, the scope to call for an early exit. In many of their eyes – including Nigel Farage – no deal now is better than the status quo. Their bar for a good deal from Brussels is likely to be exceptionally high. Tory eurosceptics, as previous prime ministers have learned, can be awkward customers on the green benches. With a narrow majority, that threat is thrown into sharp relief. 

May also faces a potential backlash from Remainers, should she choose to leave without a deal. The measure for what constitutes a duff agreement for Britain is conversely likely to be very high among pro-EU MPs who will already be peeved the UK is set to kiss farewell to the single market.

And, most importantly, it places greater intrigue into the final deal May secures. She will now be presenting said agreement to Parliament, with MPs and peers set to ratify the new relationship. As Cameron before her learned, returning all but empty handed from Brussels to the Commons chamber is a lonely place. Could Brexiteers veto the deal with a view to securing a clean break from the EU? Or could pro-EU MPs block the Brexit deal with a view to May going back to the drawing board?

As for sending the fear of God into Brussels, it's not the first time officials have heard a British PM threaten to leave empty handed from negotiations. They could be defensive before talks have even started.

Cameron nailed his colours to the mast in his 2013 Bloomberg speech that outlined demands he never extracted from Brussels. May, in a speech that similarly could define her premiership, set out the new course Britain has embarked upon. But has she, like Cameron before her, overplayed her hand?