John F. Kennedy loved foreign policy.
When he was elected to the US presidency in 1960, there was no way he was going to leave something so fun and interesting to someone else.
So what do clever politicians do in such a situation? They appoint someone vanilla.
JFK’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk wasn’t someone with big ideas, someone who’d cause a splash. The net result: everyone looked at JFK for foreign policy guidance.
Prime Minister Theresa May has just done a JFK.
Her new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is the opposite of his predecessor David Davis. Raab’s relatively inexperienced, not very outspoken, and he’s completely indebted to the PM for this exceptional promotion.
May’s intentions behind promoting a junior to such a high-profile job have already become clear. She’s essentially demoted the whole Brexit department and taken control of Brexit herself.
Here’s what May hijacking Brexit means for the UK.
At last May shows who’s boss
The first year after the EU referendum, Prime Minister Theresa May kept saying that “Brexit means Brexit”. And the British public was none the wiser.
The truth is, of course, that May had no idea what Brexit was supposed to mean.
It’s why she avoided definitions and let herself be pushed around by David Davis, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, who all had their own ideas of what it meant.
That all changed a couple of weeks ago.
May finally made up her mind about what Brexit means. The positive thing is that it’s put an end to the cabinet’s infighting. For the first time we see May acting like she is in charge.
As Johnson and Davis have found out, it’s now May’s way or the highway. May’s way means the UK is now heading towards a soft, Norway type of deal with the EU.
She’s convinced the UK needs to stay as close to the EU as possible. Her critic Johnson condemned the plan for making the country an EU “colony”.
Phase one of “Operation Norway” came at the cabinet’s weekend retreat at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house in Buckinghamshire.
She got rid of the two most vocal Brexiters in her cabinet: Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Now she was free to follow her own course.
Next, she chose a rookie to replace Davis to make sure she wouldn’t be challenged by her own right hand.
Then came a charm offensive in the Brexit heartlands where the PM explained why it’s in the UK’s best interests to stay close to the EU.
And finally she demoted the whole Brexit department so she could firmly take the reins on the UK’s departure from the EU herself.
Riding high after her successful hijack of the Brexit process, May even felt confident enough to take a sharper tone with Brussels. She urged the EU to “evolve” its position and bin its “unworkable” proposals.
What does this all mean for Brexit?
It means Britons can expect a close future relationship with the EU. Bookies can slash the odds of a soft Brexit.
Three booby traps
Sure, it’s not going to be a walk in the park for May.
There are still plenty of booby traps along the way before the PM will have pushed a soft Brexit through the Commons.
Three things that could go wrong: Brussels rejects May’s plans, Johnson challenges May’s leadership, and parliament blows up May’s Brexit deal.
Let’s have a look at each of them.
The PM’s Brexit White Paper shows she wants to keep free movement of goods but not services or people. Though Brussels has welcomed May’s softer stance, it’s doubtful it’ll compromise on freedom of movement. It’s a package deal.
However, if the UK is willing to compromise a lot (like accepting European Court of Justice rulings), it’s not inconceivable that the EU makes some concessions too. That might just be enough to squeak the deal through parliament.
The second booby trap – Johnson taking on May – I find less dangerous.
Though the whole universe by now knows of Johnson’s dream to become prime minister, there’s no way he’s going to step in now.
Once parliament’s recess is over, the UK’s time to negotiate with the EU will be almost up. It’s not like Brussels will reset the clock if the UK switches prime ministers.
Besides, being on the sidelines at this crucial phase bodes well for Johnson. He’s jumped ship early enough to avoid most of the blame for whatever deal May comes up with.
May is after a close relationship with the EU. Johnson knows the Brexit heartlands are probably not going to like that. Now that he’s out of the cabinet, it’ll be easier for Johnson to point the finger at May if Brexit fails to satisfy voters.
Finally, parliament could blow up May’s deal with Brussels.
No doubt the PM’s walking a tightrope. She needs to strike the perfect balance between demands from Brexit lovers and Europhiles.
May’s plans for a Norway-ish Brexit will please no one, but it has the best chance of passing the Commons. Remember, a majority of MPs campaigned to stay in the EU. They will probably favour any deal over no deal at all.
At the eleventh hour, May has at last shown leadership on Brexit. More than two years after the EU referendum, Britons finally know what leaving means: out of the EU but remaining very close.
Whether voters will accept this type of Brexit is a different question entirely.