Lessons from a famous Florentine

Theresa May needs to court the EU27 without alienating hard Brexiteers in her Florence speech. Maybe she should reread an Italian classic.

Today Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to offer the EU an olive branch when she speaks to an audience in Florence.

May will offer a constructive approach to settling Britain’s divorce bill. She’ll hope it’ll get the negotiations out of its current deadlock.

The settlement is one of three areas in which “sufficient progress” needs to be made before the EU wants to discuss future trade relations.

The thorny issue of Northern Ireland and the rights of EU and UK expats make up the other two.

Though she’s speaking in Italy, in today’s world of mass communication May knows she’ll be addressing a UK audience as much as a European one.

That could be a problem.

The PM will want to appear accommodating towards her European counterparts to end the stalemate in the negotiations.

At the same time she’ll be mindful not to give the hard Brexit faction in her party ammunition ahead of next month’s Conservative Party conference.

A delicate balance needs to be struck where May shows the EU a gesture of goodwill whilst not upsetting her party members that are dead set on leaving as quickly as possible.

To achieve this, May might have to learn a trick from a famous Florentine.

Learning from the lion and the fox

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… I have others.”

It’s a quote attributed to American comedian Groucho Marx and touches upon a perceived flaw of many politicians: they go back on their word far too easily.

It’s not unreasonable to want our politicians to be more like signposts and less like weathervanes, to use a famous Tony Benn comparison.

However, back in the early 16th century an Italian diplomat already questioned whether being “inflexible” was a means to stay in power.

In his famous work The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli outlined how to fight off the leadership challenges people in power inevitably face.

According to the Florentine, leaders “must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps and a fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.”

In other words: flexibility is essential to survival. Every threat is a little different and so you need to adjust to face different challenges.

May has proved she’s capable of this in the past. In fact, you might say it’s the very reason she’s come to power.

Having fought the EU referendum battle on the losing Remain side, she quickly manifested herself as a leader who’d follow “the will of the people” no matter what.

Of course, it was a stroke of luck that her opponents from the Leave side, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, had taken each other out of the race, paving the way for her to Number 10.

Still, by being a low-profile campaigner and her track record of being critical of the EU in the past, May had cunningly put herself in a great position to become the next Prime Minister regardless of the result.

Accepting the lesser evil

Theresa May now needs to pull off a similar stunt. She must appear to be on two different sides at the same time without losing her credibility.

That’s a big ask.

Realistically, it’ll be hard for May to please everyone in the weeks ahead. She can’t simultaneously be more accommodating towards the EU and follow the hard stance Brexiteer Boris Johnson called for.

What does Machiavelli propose?

“Whenever one tries to escape one danger one runs into another. Prudence consists in being able to assess the nature of a particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil.”

Right now the bigger evil would be for the PM to make no progress in the Brexit talks.

It would reflect badly on the government but it would also contest previous claims made by Brexiteers that leaving shouldn’t be too complicated.

This makes the Brexiteers in her own party the lesser evil May faces.

They won’t welcome her softer tone, but they’re unlikely to undermine their leader and risk chaos at such a pivotal time in the negotiations.

May’s good fortune is that even hard Brexiteers like Gove and Johnson now reluctantly accept a transition period will be necessary after March 2019.

May reportedly doesn’t want this period to be longer than two years, which seems a nod to the Brexiteers. After all, Chancellor Philip Hammond and the business lobby prefer a longer transition phase.

In any case, more should become clear about the government’s Brexit strategy in the coming weeks.

It’ll be a great time to judge if May can be both a fox and a lion, as Machiavelli said good leaders should be.

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