May’s Prime Ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings.
On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the Prime Minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee-read it here and see it here. Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be speech in January and a plan published at some point soon but what did the appearance itself tell us?
- May still thinks secrecy is the best policy
Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, is less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.
- May wants government in charge
Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government was in charge-parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:
Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.
Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.
Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?
Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.
- Is May making some wiggle room?
The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.
- Is May a master of the detail?
Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session the Chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the Prime Minister.
Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.
Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.
Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.
Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.
Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.
Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.
Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.
Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.
Chair: We are all agreed on that.
Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.
Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.
Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.
Perhaps the confusion was due to nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.
The fact that the Prime Minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip or could be the shape of things to come.