Given the opportunity to question the Prime Minister in the wake of her Lancaster House speech
on Brexit, one might have thought that one issue in particular might have been to the fore.
That issue is straightforward and direct. Initially, any inquisitor might put the point that, when it was suggested to her predecessor, Mr Cameron, that a free trade agreement was a viable option as an alternative to EU membership, he dismissed it
as a "leap in the dark".
Specifically, then and now
, Canada was been cited as the most likely model for the UK. So, when it was put to the then prime minister that Canada had done "quite a good" trade deal with the EU, Mr Cameron replied:
Well, it hasn't been finished. It's been going for seven years … If we leave, seven years potentially of uncertainty. And at the end of that process you still can't be certain that our businesses will have full access to the market, so it could cost jobs, it could mean businesses, overseas businesses not investing in Britain. It would be a step into the dark, a real risk and uncertainty, and that's just the last thing we need in our country right now.
The question that might be directed to the current Prime Minister, therefore, could with advantage have been, to the effect that:
Mrs May, your predecessor said that seeking a free trade deal with the EU was a 'shot in the dark', reminding us that it had taken seven years and still wasn't finished. Why is it then, Mrs May, you think you can do different, and negotiate such an agreement inside two years? What is different, what is so special that you can succeed when so trade deal have been agreed in recent times with the EU in less than three years?
It might help to know that the original questioner of Mr Cameron was Andrew Marr, on his TV show
on 21 February 2016. And yesterday, this same interviewer had Mrs May in exactly the hot seat. What did he ask her?
Well, the one thing we can be assured is that he didn't task her on the Canada issue, or in fact ask her anything at all about how she aimed to succeed in her negotiations. Instead, he wasted most of the precious time with her asking
about what alternative she had in mind if the negotiations failed and the UK "had to walk away" from a bad deal.
Thus, when Mrs May asserted that she had "every expectation that we will be able to achieve a very good trade deal with the European Union", this went completely unchallenged. Not a single question was directed at how she intended to achieve it. Instead, she was allowed to prattle on, saying:
So I want a trade deal with the EU which ensures that our companies have the best possible access to and opportunity to operate within the European single market in goods and services. But I'm very clear that on behalf of the British people I don't want to sign up to a bad deal for the UK. So it is right that we say that we look at the alternatives and …
Tucked in there is another amazing statement, that she wants companies to have the opportunity to operate within
the Single Market. Yet, in her speech, Mrs May had said: "I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market".
Mr Marr made no attempt to explore that contradiction and instead let it pass, interjecting with the comment: "What I'm asking you is what the alternative is".
To that, the Prime Minister responded: "Well, the alternative, whatever the circumstances, whatever the deal is that we sign up to or if we don't get a good deal, I want to retain the competitiveness of the British economy. And that's why we will be looking at those options".
"We will be looking at the competitiveness of the British economy, if we have to walk away, I don't suspect we will, I have every confidence because of the interests of the European Union as well that we will be able to get that good deal", she added.
As answers go, that was a model of obfuscation, and less than the viewers – and the electorate – deserved. But to this travesty, the only thing the useless Marr could add was the suggestion that the Prime Minister was "elegantly moving away" from the alternatives he was trying to ask her about.
This was not good enough – not anything like good enough. Mrs May owed us the answers, but Mr Marr owed us the questions. There needs to be a special place in Hell reserved for useless BBC interviewers, who get senior politicians on the rack and then fail to perform.
Politicians, of course, don't need reservations – they are going to Hell anyway, and Mrs May will have a first class seat. But if this excuse for a democracy is to work, then the media must do its job properly. And, on every count, Mr Marr fails.
We are not dealing here with a strange and arcane point. During the referendum campaign, the difficulty of signing up free trade deals was a central feature of the "remain" campaign.
A week after he had spoken to Mr Marr, Cameron was writing for the Telegraph
, telling us that Brexit would be "the gamble of the century". A suggestion, he wrote:
… is to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement or similar with the EU, like Canada, Switzerland or Turkey. But none of these countries has an agreement that is any way as comprehensive as the Single Market. That's OK for them – around a tenth of Canada's exports, for example, go to Europe; but around half of ours do. What’s more, Canada’s agreement, when it takes effect, will offer less access for services than we have now. But that sector makes up three-quarters of our economy. What would that mean for UK jobs in retail, insurance and creative industries?
Then Cameron put these questions: "how long would it take to put a new relationship in place – and how great would the uncertainty be for families and businesses in the meantime? It took Switzerland a decade to negotiate their current relationship with Europe, and Canada seven years – and theirs still hasn't been implemented".
And so central was it to the campaign that it was highlighted in the official government report
on alternatives to the EU. It said:
An advanced Free Trade Agreement, such as that negotiated between the EU and Canada, brings less access to the Single Market. The EU-Canada agreement does not give tariff-free access to all Canadian manufactured goods, does not cover a number of key service sectors, such as audio-visual and the majority of air transport, and requires Canada to accept EU rules when exporting to the EU, as well as quotas on some agricultural exports. This has taken seven years to negotiate from scoping and it is not yet in force.
Thus there remains a valid question: "how long would an advanced free trade agreement take to negotiate?" And how is it that Mrs May thinks she can get "a good deal" inside two years? We need to know the answers, and Andrew Marr should have asked the questions.