She did it. We didn’t think she would, but she got there in the end. Britain is now at the stage in its negotiations with the EU that it would have reached 12 months ago if the prime minister had accepted the terms and conditions on the first phase of Brexit that she was offered on Day One.
The reason she held out, we must assume, was that she believed she could do better by waiting to the very last second before acknowledging that the package she signed up to was the best she was going to get.
The Tory Party is currently rallying round its leader, pretending that she did a superb job in Brussels, aided by canny master negotiator David Davis. The fact that the deal that has been adopted is pretty well the opposite of the one held out to voters in the weeks following the triggering of Article 50 is apparently of no importance.
Indeed, even to point out that the final settlement is in all important respects identical to that presented by the European Commission even before the referendum was held – a proposition rubbished by the likes of Davis, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as an infringement of British liberties and an example of daylight robbery – is now rejected as not only rude, but tantamount to lèse majesté.
But better late than never. Regardless of who was right and who was hopelessly and lamentably wrong, Britain can now go forward to the vital trade negotiations that will determine the greater part of our economic future for decades to come. So two cheers for Theresa May, with one, possibly both, held in reserve until March 29, 2019, or 2021, or 2027 … whenever.
So what can we expect to emerge from Phase 2? Michel Barnier couldn’t have been clearer. Britain cannot hope to obtain better terms for its trading relationship than it enjoys now. The best it can hope for is a deal such as that achieved by Canada after talks that dragged on for seven years. There will not, M. Barnier reminded us, be a get-out-of-jail-free card for the City of London, Free access to the Eurozone for financial services will only be possible if the UK remains within the Single Market, which it is pledged to leave. We may, or may not, get a Canada deal with knobs on, but none of those knobs will open the door to the Eurozone.
The reality is that the deal the two sides come up with has already been drafted, in Brussels, Paris and Berlin. We could sign off in three months (giving experts the necessary time to draw up the detail). But that would be too easy. What will actually happen is that David Davis, with the support, at long last, of trade secretary Liam Fox, will hold out and hold out for more, until finally insisting that Canada+ is what he wanted all the time.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope something can be argued that will give the City some future entrée into Europe. And even if I’m not wrong, I hope that the toffs and barrow boys who run the Square Mile can, with help from their friends, find loopholes to exploit in the years to come. Who knows? It’s not over until Theresa May sings for her supper.
The other thing we know is that there are those in the Commission and in one or two national governments who will do their best to help Britain present Brexit 1 as hard-fought and a credit to the Tories’ top team. They will do so in part to save Mrs May’s face, but also so that they can appear reasonable, not rude and domineering, like that nasty Mr Trump. At which point, after the inevitable delays and false starts, we can begin to make progress towards what has already been decided.
One last thing: it would be helpful as events unfold if the Brexit Secretary could be relied on to read his own departmental briefs. But perhaps that is asking too much.