As I See It
Could May and Sturgeon agree on the EU?
Her detractors rightly raise concerns over some aspects of her track record, and they are right to question the veracity of her commitment to creating a more egalitarian society, given her views on, for instance, human rights legislation.
Even so, there is much to like about someone who is a do-er, not a talker. As her predecessor Lady Thatcher once said; “If you want someone to make a speech, ask a man; if you want to get something done, ask a woman.”
In an impatient, attention-deficient world, it is almost inevitable we will get more Action Women and that is probably a good thing.
In Mrs May we seem to have just such a person. An army of Westminster correspondents were unable to rely on their “well-placed sources” who were suggesting we would know the make-up of the new Cabinet by this weekend. Mrs May was having none of that. Even before she had time to put the kettle on in her new Downing Street home she had sacked her Chancellor and named her key lieutenants. Within 24 hours the whole Cabinet was in place.
Given the need to also give the economy a fresh kick up the you-know-where, there must now be a strong chance that she will sanction a speeding up of infrastructure spending to give a boost construction (latest data would support a need for this), and restore confidence among investors.
If you’re near a bookie any time soon, put your money on a quick decision on the additional airport runway. Now that London mayor Sadiq Khan has come out in support of Gatwick, have a wager on this option. Mrs May could win a few brownie points by backing some popular campaigns. More money for councils to undertake road repairs? A general spring cleaning of the nation?
In between all the hiring and firing of ministers, Mrs May was getting her new private office to book a flight to Scotland, attempting to nip a potentially awkward relationship with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the bud.
Ms Sturgeon is also a woman in a hurry and likes to get things done. Despite her diplomatic calming of those champing at the bit for another run at independence there is nothing she would rather receive from Mrs May this Christmas than a gift-wrapped book on “How to make your own country”.
Unfortunately, the general call-to-action is where the similarity between the two women ends. There is more chance of the Pope getting a place on the board at Ibrox than there is of Theresa saying to Nicola: “Oh, go on then.”
Of course, the talks at Bute House will focus on the EU. They will be cordial, the handshakes will be firm, and the smiles beaming. They will issue statements (they’re only speaking to the cameras) on how they have presented their options and, at best, how they have laid down foundations for “further discussion” (political and management speak for saying “we couldn’t agree on anything”).
This is the problem facing two Action Women who have markedly different objectives. Like two sisters who argue over who has the prettiest dress, there is no right or wrong, only preferences.
Yet not all is lost. Mrs May will say that Britain’s new relationship with Europe requires a British solution. If she can persuade Ms Sturgeon that this means access to the single market they could find common ground in seeking the same outcome.
It comes down to how the “negotiations” are handled and how the end-result is presented. As I stated in this column just after the EU referendum, Britain is not so much leaving the EU as being a little bit less in the EU. After all, Britain has always had opt-outs (Masstricht etc) and is not part of the eurozone. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that we will try the same get-out-clause tactics this time around while making sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Mrs May said: “Brexit means Brexit”. But what does that mean, exactly? In truth, it can mean whatever she determines it to mean. In the end we will get a fudge (we always do) which will relieve Britain of the over-burdening elements of the EU while conceding a few issues of importance to Brussels in order to keep our trade agreements in place. Chief of these will be a need to maintain the free movement of labour. And what that means is that nothing much will change.