Theresa May’s speech: Five Brexit questions

If you were to say Theresa May’s Brexit speech yesterday was highly anticipated, you’d probably be putting forward an early contender for political understatement of the year. In one fell swoop Mrs May set out at least some of the detail on the British negotiating position that politicos, business leaders and the public had clamoured for, while also giving headline writers the world over a very late (or early dependent on your view) Christmas present.

So we now have a better understanding of what the Prime Minister is aiming for, what she’s prepared to give up, and what her ‘red lines’ are. Doubtless there was some trepidation amongst her advisers over the speech – after all the last British politician to set out ‘red lines’ and objectives for European negotiations was David Cameron, and we all know how that panned out.

But there are still some big questions for Mrs May.

Does Britain have the expertise to realise the PM’s goals?

Current (privately) and former (publicly) civil servants have raised concerns over the availability of the requisite expertise in Whitehall to negotiate the complex deals that Mrs May will need to agree if she’s to achieve the goals set out yesterday. One report before Christmas suggested the civil service was as many as 30,000 staff shy of being able to take forward the great Brexit project.

Basic capacity will be required, as will very specialist and high level negotiating and legal expertise. The Prime Minister has set some lofty ambitions that will be challenging to achieve. And that job will only get more difficult if she doesn’t have access to the talent and capacity she needs.

Can a deal be done in time?

When Theresa May triggers Article 50 in March, she’ll sound the starting gun on what’s supposed to be a two-year negotiating process. That would be difficult in the best of circumstances, but will be further complicated by elections in the likes of Germany and France, which may be reluctant to discuss detail until their governments are confirmed.

Mrs May has, not unreasonably, not watered down her position in light of possible political changes on the Continent. But in probably adding complexity to the negotiating process, the basic timescale will be tricky at best. Unless…

Is any type of transition on the table?

A major question for the British negotiators to nail down will be whether negotiations must be completed within a two-year timeframe, or whether there’s scope for more time to agree a deal that is acceptable to all parties. The PM and Chancellor Philip Hammond have both mooted the possibility of some sort of transition – the question is whether such a concept is amenable to EU and Member State negotiators. If not, then Mrs May could have to decide whether to walk away from the negotiating table, whatever that means of British-European relations.

Can the UK secure alternative/additional trade deals?

It was ironic that news that likely prompted optimism from Downing Street – namely suggestions from Donald Trump that a quick trade deal with the US was very much on the table – came from a man unlikely to have been on Theresa May’s Christmas card list in Michael Gove.

The Prime Minister’s confirmation the UK will leave the single market places additional pressure on Liam Fox’s department to secure trade and investment opportunities for the UK. The question is whether those are achievable within a timeframe that influences Brexit negotiations, or at least does not hinder economic growth. It further complicates matters that, in principle at least, the UK can’t negotiate with third countries until a deal with the EU is agreed and the UK has left the club. Strictly speaking, negotiations would be in breach of the UK’s membership of the EU – so pursuing alternative trade deals may not encourage accommodation by other countries and the institutions.

Can the PM balance other major priorities?

Ordinarily, a report suggesting the NHS will need an extra £88bn over the next half century would probably make the front page of some or all the national newspapers, especially when it comes from the Office of Budget Responsibility. Not so today.

That such financial forecasting was relegated from the front pages shows the importance of the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday. But it’s also a sobering reminder that British politics can’t be Brexit-dominated over the next couple of years (or longer). The health service in particular has been shown repeatedly to be in chronic difficulty – with hospitals and GPs facing a Battle of the Alamo-style workload, such is the demand on resources. And let’s not forget that the education sector has similarly cried out for additional funding in the billions.

Mrs May will have had a tough time with these competing priorities in any case. Throw Brexit into the mix and there’s are serious issues of managing time and resources. And, the UK will have to secure the trade deals necessary to maintain economic growth and ensure continued levels (if not more) funding for the likes of education and the NHS.