Say it cautiously, but after a month of unprecedented turmoil and change in the British political landscape we’ve just had a relatively normal week in domestic politics. The Labour Party civil war rumbles on unabated, but it has become the new normal, maybe it was the end of term feeling in Westminster or the late arrival of summer, but things finally feel like they are settling down. Some of the credit for that must go to Theresa May, who has made a great start as Prime Minister, building a broad cabinet and performing impressively in her first major public engagements, including a strong and reassuring command of the House in the Trident debate and PMQs.
The vote to renew Trident by a large majority is a significant sign to all Britain’s allies and foes that this country intends to remain a major player on the world stage. The British economy remains fundamentally strong, although early signs are that, as expected, growth will take a big hit from the aftershock of the 23rd June vote. The markets have undoubtedly been calmed by the end of the political vacuum and installation of a new government, but the pound remains at historic lows not seen in modern times. Businesses, and people, are waiting to see the big question of our time answered, what does Brexit look like?
We still do not know the answer to that question. The abject failure of the leave campaign to adequately elucidate a clear strategy and vision for a post-Brexit Britain was one of the reasons I voted to Remain. I didn’t fancy jumping off the diving board without being able to see the bottom of the pool. One month on it is clearer than ever that for the leave campaign the act of leaving in itself was a utopian panacea to all Britain’s ills, negating the need for deeper thinking about the post-Brexit reality. History will judge whether that was an act of gross irresponsibility or a necessary means to an end, now is the time to get on with delivering a deal that works for everyone and every part of Britain. There can be no second referendum, that is not how democracy works in Britain, even if it may be Brussels preferred way of doing things.
Theresa May has started the right way in putting three Brexiteers in charge of moulding Britain’s new relationship with the rest of the world. The new Department for International Trade will be a critical part in the jigsaw of Britain’s post-brexit economic relationships. A range of countries have already expressed an interest in doing free trade deals with the UK, from South Korea to Pakistan, for reasons ranging from wishing to sell goods into Britain’s large consumer market to accessing free movement provisions that often come with free trade deals. Clearly such deals can have complicated implications, many of which may be troubling for those who voted Leave, so it’s important to have a pro-leave Minister in charge of these negotiations.
The news last night that Philip Hammond has already discussed a free trade deal with China whilst in Beijing was particularly positive for the West Midlands, which, uniquely in the UK, has an export surplus with China. Similarly, the signs are that the US is open to a deal with the UK, which presents few of the domestic political problems for Washington other free trade deals with developing countries do. The UK might just be able to avoid the anti-free trade rising tide in America, whereas the proposed TTIP deal, now in any case threatened by Germany’s Social Democrats, may not. If the UK can secure a deal with the US at the very time talks between Brussels and Washington collapse it will make many of us feel better about post-EU trading relationships.
Pursuing modern and comprehensive free trade deals that play to the UK’s strengths in services is critical to our future prosperity. Making it easier for our young people to travel and work and live in the rest of the world, particularly developing closer links with our English-speaking friends in North America and Australasia, would also be a beneficial side-effect of our new freedom to make our own trading arrangements. Of course many of these agreements could take much longer than two years to negotiate, another reason why it is imperative the UK government does not invoke Article 50 until we are fully prepared.
One month on, the shape of Brexit is very far from clear, but most genuine commentators during the referendum campaign acknowledged charting a new course for HMS UK would not be a smooth or easy process. The ultimate destination, not the journey duration, is what matters.