Tactics, not strategy, continue to define the Brexit process, writes Evgeny Pudovkin.

When John Major appointed Norman Lamont as Chancellor, the latter’s Permanent Secretary had told his boss, “You do realise you are about to become the most unpopular person in the country?” In his memoirs Lamont wrote that, for the whole his two-year stint at the Treasury, this was the only forecast that proved to be correct.

The same unnerving prognosis, it appears, is also relevant for any government figure during the Brexit process. What the final deal with Brussels will look like is still ambiguous. One thing is clear, though. Whoever is in charge of the executive will have to endure the feverish atmosphere, bordering, at times, on outright panic.

David Cameron, Lamont’s former protégé, realised that in the early hours of 24 June. There was a glimpse of hope that his successor, Theresa May, might heal the rupture of Brexit by turning away from the discredited ‘establishment’ politics. Cameroons left, and alongside them, May pledged, would austerity, overzealous ‘libertarianism’ and uncontrolled migration. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Brexit muddle, compounded by May’s botched election gamble, made sure the Prime Minister faces a cascade of hostility.

Today both May and Cameron attract an equal amount of schadenfreude. For his critics, Cameron is a monogamous iteration of Anthony Eden, with Brexit as his Suez. May, for her part, bears reminiscence to Alec Douglas-Home – a safe pair of hands with a notorious lack of attention to detail. Lacking economic training, Douglas-Home relied on his advisers to explain financial matters on matches. May, her rivals contend, neglected experts’ advice at all.

But are these accusations fair? And could May have done things differently?

A year since the referendum, it is still hard to envisage radical alternatives to the Tories’ current approach. Indeed, most of the thorny questions the critics still pose to the Prime Minister, she has already answered.

Take the Labour party’s complaints. Keir Starmer, Shadow Minister for Exiting the EU, accused May of having prematurely locked herself in a ‘hard’ Brexit position. The Prime Minister, he said, should not have made a decision on either the Single Market or the Customs Union so hastily.

Or at least that’s what Starmer was saying last June. In the following three months Labour managed to cram as many u-turns on Brexit as some parties commit in as many years. As far as I can understand it, the left’s present position involves securing “a changed relationship” with the Single Market. That, in turn, should mean restricting the free movement from within the EEA.

But May had already been through that. Just a month into her tenure, she had pitched the idea of Britain retaining the Single Market membership, while acquiring some sovereign control over the borders. Hence her vague statements at the G20 summit last autumn.

The EU leaders swiftly parried her move, prohibiting what they regarded as ‘cherry-picking’ by London. In their public interventions, both the Commission and European national leaders underscored the indivisibility of the Single Market’s four freedoms. The redlines she adopted in her speech at Lancaster House last December – leaving both Single Market and Customs Union – is a logical consequence of that. It is incredible how Labour ties itself into knots about the issue both the British government and the EU made clear over a year ago.

Some, most notably Tony Blair, continue to advocate for reforming the EU from the inside. Yet only a few days after the former Labour Party’s leader intervention, Jean-Claude Junker used his annual address to the EU parliament to divulge plans for the United States of Europe. Political leaders in France and Germany, meanwhile, are busy with plans to overhaul the Eurozone. Why on earth would Europeans suddenly put these initiatives on hold?

May seemed to have captured the mood in Brussels with greater prescience in her Lancaster House address. “David Cameron’s negotiation was a valiant final attempt to make it work for Britain”, she said. “But the blunt truth, as we know, is that there was not enough flexibility on many important matters for a majority of British voters”.

Some still claim Britain should stay in the EEA, adopting the so-called Norwegian model. Precisely how this scenario solves anything is unclear. Oslo still has to adhere to the freedom of movement rules. The Norwegian option would leave in place 93 out of the 100 costliest EU-derived regulations at an annual cost of £31.4 billion (Open Europe data). Finally, the EEA membership will mean no control of migration for the UK.

Staying within the EEA, May said, “would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all”. This conclusion still stands. Moreover, the Norwegian option is worse than full membership. In the latter scenario London will at least have a greater role in devising the community’s rules.

Domestic considerations do not yet cast a shadow on these considerations. According to a YouGov poll, 70 per cent think that current inflow into the UK is too high. The gross inflow almost doubled between 1993 and 2015 (from 260,000 to 588,000). In 1998 around three per cent of the population named migration as a topic they feel most concerned about, in April 2016 it was 39 per cent (the Migration Observatory figures).

Now, it is true that non-EU migrants to the UK outnumber those coming from within the bloc. A research Dustmann and Frattini (2013) also found that whereas non-European migrants have made a large negative contribution to the public purse between 1995 and 2011, the EEA migrants, by contrast, had put more into the exchequer than they took out. But here is the rub: the line between these two categories is being blurred, as the migration crisis persists. According to data cited by The Times, 73 per cent of economic migrants from outside the EU remain within the bloc despite having been asked by European governments to leave.

Beyond that, both Labour and the Conservative Party’s respective manifestos promised a ‘hard’ divorce with Brussels during the last election campaign. Out of 650 current MPs, 578 were returned on this ticket. There is also no clear indication that Britons would vote Remain, were a new referendum held today.

However much one may not agree with it – and there are quite a few reasons not to – May’s policy on Brexit is clear. She wants to pursue a Canada-style deal with the EU with as much access to the EEA benefits as possible. Indeed, that is what Brexit was supposed to look like, according to the leading Remainers.

The Prime Minister must play the cards she has already been dealt. It is not as much political deftness or sensitivity to psephological trends that the Brexit negotiations require, but stamina. Competence in tactical execution matters more than any grand visions.

Above all, May must ensure a seamless transition to a ‘hard’ Brexit. This may well involve a transition phase, whereby the UK sticks to the present status-quo. Brexiteers need to relax: it is unlikely that the arrangement will be permanent. For it to become so may require unanimity among EU governments and ratification by national and some regional parliaments.

Another task that May has to do is keeping the party together. Doing so will become harder as the Brexit process progresses, and the next election looms closer. The Prime Minister must therefore ensure that the Party stays united when, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, the ‘excrement hits the air conditioner’.

In fairness to the Government, given the complexity of Brexit, the Cabinet has been rather consistent. The Treasury and the Trade Department speak with one voice on the customs deal. No government minister has disputed the notion of leaving the Single Market. Compare that with Labour’s leadership, where Jeremy Corbyn’s position on staying in the EEA had to be corrected by his spokesman hours after his interview.

All in all, despite missteps, May deserves more credit than her critics allow. Since the failed General Election in June, a Tory is yet to challenge May for the leadership. That alone speaks volumes. So greasy is the pole on which she is standing, no one dares climb it.

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