"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." Theresa May has clearly been reading her Lewis Carroll.
Yesterday, she declared in her speech to her assembled
minions cabinet members,
diplomats and reporters that the UK would be a country open to the world. That’s ‘open’ in the mayspeak sense of ‘closed’,
of course; with strict border controls preventing any foreigners from getting
in. Still, perhaps we can expect a major
recruitment campaign for the UK Border Agency – see, Brexit does create jobs
after all. Or then again, perhaps
It wasn’t the only example in the speech of words not meaning what they appear to mean at first sight. Take her comment that no deal is better than a bad deal, for instance. It’s a nice sound bite, and makes her sound like a tough negotiator – but what does it actually mean?
We know by now that the worst case in any possible trade arrangement with the EU27 is that the UK falls back on WTO rules. It’s surely obvious that even the maddest of EU negotiators wouldn’t seriously try to put anything worse than that on the table; any negotiation at all (and therefore any deal resulting from such negotiation) will, by definition, be better than that, because we're negotiating up from that point. But what she has, in effect, said is that unless she considers it a ‘good’ deal she will reject it and walk away with the WTO option. Unless they give her what she wants, she’ll walk away with something even worse – like all good mayspeak, it’s the exact opposite of what the words seem to mean when first heard.
Putting a gun to your head and threatening to shoot yourself unless the other side backs down is an approach which works well in a comedy film, but only because the script writers can decree that the audience are sufficiently stupid and credulous to fall for it. Someone needs to explain to her that, in this case, she’s not writing the script.
It gets better (by which, obviously, I mean worse). Having said for months that she couldn’t even spell out what she was aiming to get because that would betray her negotiating hand, she’s now told the other side, in very plain terms, that she’s quite happy to walk away with nothing. It’s going from one extreme to the other. Why even bother negotiating?
There are people arguing that a vote for Brexit didn’t necessarily imply a vote for leaving the single market, and that she’s therefore going beyond the mandate that the electorate gave. Strictly speaking, that’s true – leaving the single market wasn’t on the ballot paper. But once you interpret the referendum outcome as being first and foremost a vote for controlling borders (although that wasn’t actually on the ballot paper either), then the decision to leave the single market necessarily follows. For all the talk since 23rd June, it has been clear from the outset that abolishing freedom of movement and remaining in the single market were incompatible.
I was surprised, at first, that the pound bounced back up as she spoke – until, that is, it was explained that the part of her speech that caused the bounce was the part referring to giving MPs and peers a vote on the final terms. The currency traders believe, apparently, that that leaves open the possibility of parliament voting to reject the terms of any deal. It’s a theoretical possibility of course; but the government will control the terms of any vote, and it’s more likely to be about the terms on which we leave rather than whether or not we leave. And even if it were to be on the principle, does anyone believe that the parliamentary majority in favour of staying would actually vote according to their consciences?Overall, the speech has left me upbeat and optimistic. In mayspeak terms, anyway.