Richard North, 21/12/2016  

Even after twice watching her in front of yesterday's Liaison Committee, I still don't know what quite to make of Theresa May's performance. I earlier remarked that her answers to the MPs' questions were a master class in studied ambiguity and the passage of time has done nothing to change my view.

My great worry is that the Prime Minister's responses may actually represent not ambiguity but a lack of clarity, reflecting her own confusion. Nothing she said in any way suggested that she was master (or mistress) of her Brexit brief and had decided on a clear direction for the forthcoming negotiations.

The one area where we did get clarity was in her determination to see the negotiations completed within two years. She fully expects to meet the negotiation timetable and seemed to allow for a "transition period" in respect of time to implement whatever settlement she had agreed.

One did not get the idea that she was looking at a two-stage (or more) agreement, where we settled for a short-term settlement and then immediately starting negotiations to work towards the end game. Instead, Mrs May was talking of a "new relationship" with the EU, and remained "ambitious" about what that relationship would be, without in any way clothing it with any detail.

Thus, the net result of a ninety-minute session on Brexit, in front of some of the most senior backbenchers in Parliament, left us not really any the wiser than we were before she started. The only vague element of entertainment was her refusal, unequivocally, to commit to giving Parliament a vote on the final settlement.

While David Davis, last week, told MPs that he couldn't imagine a situation where Parliament wouldn't get a vote, Mrs May would only commit to making sure that MPs "had ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place".

In the words of the Independent, this sets the Prime Minister on a collision course with Parliament. However, this may be the least of our worries. Mrs May says she's more concerned about "actually delivering on the vote of the British people, which is that we will be leaving the EU".

Before we get that far, though, we need to put together the separate pieces of what Mrs May is saying. And when one attempts to analyse them, we start to wonder whether she really understands what she is dealing with.

If, for instance, the Prime Minister is going for a transitional deal on the lines she is suggesting, then we are almost certainly going to be looking at a succession treaty. And in that case, Parliament will doubtless have the last word as any such treaty will require parliamentary ratification.

That apart, the bigger concern is her apparent confidence that the negotiations can be concluded within two years, without revealing the magic formula which is going to square the circle. With so many different people telling her that it is not possible to conclude a deal within two years, she must have something really special lined up. It would be helpful if we knew what it was.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon is coming up with her own ideas for Scotland, arguing that her region (as the EU insists on calling it) should remain in the EEA, and thereby the Single Market, even if the rest of the United Kingdom doesn't.

Yet, in a one-sentence put-down, Mrs May told the Liaison Committee that she is looking for a United Kingdom solution to Brexit, which precludes any specific settlement for Scotland. And nor, as The Scotsman observes, does she buy the idea of Scotland gaining independence if it doesn't get its way.

Despite this, one should perhaps be encouraged that Sturgeon sees the "Norway option" as her answer, except that she sees it as the end game, rather than an interim option. And Sturgeon's report also lays undue emphasis on continued membership of the customs union, also wanting the rest of the UK to remain inside.

As to what Mrs May has in mind, we are going to have to wait until the New Year, when she promises us a "major speech". Until then, and in any event, all of us could do without Sturgeon playing her games.

Much more of a focus is going to be required if we are to see off an emerging threat which the New Statesman sees as potentially scuppering our chances of a Brexit – much to its delight.

It sees a scenario where the EU 27 is unwilling to compromise the integrity of the four freedoms (free movement of goods, capital, services and people), and the authority of the ECJ is required to ensure that the rules of the Single Market are adhered to, while MPs demand unimpeded access to the Single Market, the re-establishment of border controls and freedom from the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

This story ends with the UK falling back on WTO rules, cross-Channel supply chains being disrupted, and non-tariff barriers crippling UK-based firms.

Against that, as the electoral calculus throughout Europe shifts in favour of greater controls on immigration, we hear the siren song of "reform" once again, offering an alternative to the precipice of a hard Brexit. When we reach the edge, this scenario has the UK pulling back its Article 50 notification, with the ultimate decision on this decided by the ECJ - assuming the European Council does not agree an interpretative guideline.

Thus, in two years, when the EU has started on a path to reform, the possibility of withdrawing an Article 50 notification has been confirmed and the exit terms look singularly unattractive, there are still those who believe that public opinion could change and we end up staying in the EU.

Yet, so often have we heard the mantra of reform that I cannot see the public being taken in by yet more promises. When it comes to trust in EU institutions, the well is dry. And then Mrs May would have to be certain that a retreat from Brexit would secure her more votes than it would lose her, and would not rip the Conservative Party apart.

On that basis, the greater threat is not that we step back from Brexit, but accept – and even insist upon – exit at any price. And here, it is not that any necessary price is unacceptable, but that we should be asked to pay a price that is unnecessarily severe.

There is no reason why we have to damage our economy, or create avoidable political stresses just to secure our withdrawal from the European Union. We should be able to engineer a successful Brexit without these traumas, and that should be our overall objective.

I'm thus minded of General Patton's advice to his troops that their duty was not to die for their country, but to make the enemies' soldiers die for theirs. We do not have to "die for our country" in order to leave the EU. But the idea of Mrs May slaughtering the opposition doesn't particularly appeal either. We need a workable settlement.

However, until Mrs May tells us what she has in mind, we are none the wiser as to what this will be.

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