Yesterday Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the European Union, hand-delivered a six-page letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk, informing the President of the European Council of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. A few minutes later the Prime Minister made a statement to the House of Commons.
Those looking for further detail of the Prime Minister’s negotiating position will have been disappointed. The letter and statement covered familiar territory, previously outlined in Mrs May’s speech earlier this year and the Government’s subsequent white paper. Some commentators detected a change in tone, with repeated references in her statement to partnership. The Prime Minister spoke of the shared values of liberal democracy and said that the UK wants to remain a close friend and ally on economic and security issues. She said that she wanted to see a “new, deep and special partnership” with the EU.
The Prime Minister also struck an optimistic note in the Commons. Too optimistic some might say. Mrs May made it clear that she intended to seek a new free trade deal with the EU to be negotiated alongside discussions on the UK’s exit from the EU and agreed within the two-year Article 50 process. We may hear the EU’s response to that on Friday when Donald Tusk sets out their proposed position in a “guidelines document”. Expect to hear a rejection of the PM’s suggestion and insistence on agreeing the terms of our departure and budget contribution before any such discussions.
Earlier this week Labour set out its six tests for Brexit, including “ensuring the same benefits currently enjoyed within single market”, one which Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, carefully crafted as it echoed the words used by David Davis in a statement to the House earlier this year. Jeremy Corbyn challenged Theresa May again on meeting these tests. She provided a more nuanced response than her Brexit Secretary, saying “we’ve been clear we want to get the best possible deal and free and frictionless trade.”
But even this political footwork may be insufficient. The Prime Minister, a Remainer, has been determined to show her party, so often fractious and obsessed about Europe, that she really is committed to delivering on Brexit. She did this by triggering Article 50. But did she also miss an opportunity to manage the expectations of party and country? Even many ardent Leavers privately admit that the coming months will be difficult and that the UK cannot possibly achieve all it wants. Although the tone of the response from Mr Tusk in a statement made shortly after receiving the Article 50 letter was more one of sadness than anger, it is hard to see how EU strategists can allow the UK to leave in a pain free manner. In her letter to Mr Tusk the Prime Minister acknowledges that there “will be consequences” for the UK, such as losing influence over rules that UK companies will have to align with if they wish to trade with the EU.
At the moment the PM is unchallenged, riding high in the opinion polls and with a Labour opposition that is barely functioning. She has a lot of political capital in the bank. Yet nothing lasts for ever in politics. Mrs May is known for her caution. But will she come to regret her decision that, on the day that she gave her party what many have been craving for years, she continued to indulge the idea that the country can have its cake and eat it?