Theresa May is sending clear signals on a hard Brexit

Image of an ‘indecisive’ prime minister ignores the evidence of her words and actions

Theresa May grew up in the England where nothing is said that can be implied through body language or withheld altogether. For six years she ran the home office, a trove of secrets, some of which touch on life and death. Then there is the manner of her political rise: if you clinched the highest office in the land near-silently, you too would wonder why anyone bothers with candour.

Everything about the prime minister’s biography suggests a discreet woman with a commitment to the non-committal. Everything about her personal style, all tightly wound and vigilant, as though a prankster is always around the corner, suggests the same. If commentators have her down as a brick wall, a hoarder of secrets on matters as large as EU exit, it is because the image fits her so well.

What it does not fit is her behaviour. May has been as plain as any prudent prime minister could be about her favoured model of exit. Only the dedicatedly obtuse could not infer her priorities from the speech she gave to the Conservative Party conference in October.

Cross-reference it with her earlier interviews and her work as home secretary, and it is clear that she craves the restoration of national control over immigration more than she craves anything else. She also resents the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. These imperatives do not imply so much as demand withdrawal from the single market, and make a place in the customs union tricky to retain, too.


Core belief

None of this amounts to a strategy or a guarantee of success and her remarks have preserved some latitude at the edges. She might try to buy preferential market access for sectors of the British economy and to smooth the transition to exit with interim arrangements. She will certainly pursue a trade deal with Europe upon departure. But the core of the matter is a prime minister set on a hard not soft exit, even as she rejects these terms like a precious musician miffed at their brute pigeonholing as rock or soul.

On Monday, the pound fell in response to hard-ish prime ministerial remarks that amounted to a banal restatement. No socialist scholar has done more to disprove the rationality of markets than their own slowness to read her intent. This wilful incomprehension goes beyond the trading desks to politics and the media. The picture of May as an uncommunicative vacillator is becoming an emotional crutch for people who cannot believe that she means what she says, who do not want to believe it.

The trouble with May is not ambivalence but a lack of it. She knows her mind all too well. It is possible to predict, in rough terms, not just the exit deal she will sign but the Britain she will try to craft afterwards. Her commitment to the slower, more familiar nation of her youth, even at the cost of economic dynamism, is clear enough to anyone with the ears to pick it up and the stomach to accept it as the new dispensation in government. It may come to naught – the visions of rookie prime ministers mostly do – but the intent is unmistakable.

Social order

For the first time in my life, Britain has a prime minister who would forgo some economic growth for some social order. She has not done a business-facing job in politics. As home secretary, she discouraged even skilled newcomers to this country in pursuit of a fool’s errand of a migration target that was set – through no fault of her own – by Downing Street.

Ask a cabinet colleague whether she and her advisers are somehow ignorant of the material cost and paltry political gain that flows from curbs on foreign students, and the response is disturbingly crisp. “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care.”

Nobody is obliged to like this conservatism, but reading it as indecision is a transparent coping mechanism for the liberal-minded. They are spoilt for fairer grievances against May. She commits mandate-creep every time she spins last year’s referendum result as a clamour for her social reforms.

It is hard to read her speeches without cringing at the thought of the material that did not make the cut. That her resolve to give no "running commentary" on exit lasted as long as an English drinker's Dry January suggests that even her fortitude is overrated. As for the government's preparedness for the technical ordeal of exit talks, it is not only Sir Ivan Rogers, the recently resigned ambassador to the EU, who doubts it.

All these criticisms can be true without the central complaint – of indecision, of vagueness – having much to it. “Theresa Maybe”? If only.

(- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)