- By Hugo Dixon
Theresa May could well fail to secure good access to the single market if she becomes the next prime minister. Nobody should hope she’d keep us in the EU either, despite campaigning for Remain. But the home secretary would probably avoid a bloody divorce – unlike Michael Gove, the other main candidate who has stabbed his erstwhile comrade, Boris Johnson, in the back.
The justice secretary would be a dangerous prime minister. Unlike Johnson, who sat on the fence until the final moment, Gove is a true believer in Brexit. He is a revolutionary, not a conservative.
Gove doesn’t just want to leave the EU; he wants to break it up. This would be dangerous for Britain if we achieved it, as the EU provides us with a 1,000 mile buffer zone of stability in every direction. But even if the justice secretary failed in his ambition, the mere fact that he wants this would raise the hackles of our EU partners. They would circle the wagons to defend their project, making it all the harder for us to ensure a good exit deal.
Gove also wants to pass emergency legislation limiting the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction. This could breach our treaty obligations. What’s more, he has threatened to veto the other EU countries’ plans until we get what we want. These two statements would also increase the risk of acrimonious negotiations.
As if that is not bad enough, Gove (more than Johnson) seems responsible for Vote Leave’s anti-migrant, anti-Turk scaremongering. And he has had bad judgment in choosing Dominic Cummings, another revolutionary who showed disrespect for parliament when he appeared before MPs earlier this year, as his key advisor.
May has none of these defects. She is sensible and competent. She has, for example said we shouldn’t invoke Article 50, triggering formal divorce talks, until we have an agreed negotiating strategy – noting this wouldn’t be before the end of this year. That’s essential.
The home secretary also cannot be skewered for failing to keep the ludicrous promises that Gove and Johnson made during the campaign. If there isn’t 350million pounds a week for the NHS, too bad – she didn’t make the pledge; indeed, she warned of economic damage. If there’s no money to cut VAT, ditto.
May has already hinted that the way she would handle a budget hole is by allowing borrowing to rise rather than increasing taxes. This, too, is wise – provided the UK’s borrowing costs stay at current low levels. She also talked a good game about uniting the country after the divisive politics of the past months.
All this is good enough. But we are still in damage limitation territory. May says it is a priority to keep access to the single market. But she also says: “There is clearly no mandate for a deal that involves accepting the free movement of people as it has worked hitherto”.
The key question will be how the words “as it has worked hitherto” are interpreted. If May is prepared to maintain free movement with a few tweaks, we may keep most of our access to the single market. But the more free movement is curtailed, the more we’ll lose access for our goods and, in particular, our services.
May was also categorical that “Brexit means Brexit. The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the backdoor, and no second referendum.”
Now, of course, one should never say never in politics. The divorce negotiations are going to be long and drawn out. It is possible that circumstances would change in such a way that allowed May to do a u-turn if she became prime minister. But no pro-European should count on that.