May’s letter – the finished article?

Nicola Sturgeon may have momentarily embarrassed Number 10’s press operation last week, but next Wednesday will see the main event. This is when the Government will finally trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

After nine months of hesitation and speculation since the referendum result, we now have an assumed expiration date for our EU membership of 29th March 2019.

The Brexit agenda has moved on rapidly since the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in January but there are still unanswered questions relating to the, as yet unseen, Article 50 letter – and chief among them is what it’s actually going to say.

May has three options available to her. One, compose a short, sharp, and straight-to-the-point note to Donald Tusk informing him of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, ‘yours sincerely etc.’ – leaving the negotiating plan for, well, the negotiations.

The second option, which is perhaps most likely, is to lay out her future ambitions for the UK, highlight our shared values with our European peers and where we can co-operate in the future, and say that Britain has decided its future lies elsewhere.
In reality, this would be no more than a rehash of the 12 objectives found in the Lancaster House speech and successive white paper.

The third and least likely possibility is to present a detailed and dispassionate list of the UK’s demands. The danger here is that when the EU says ‘non’, the debate will be shut down there and then, rather than left as a loose thread which May and Davis can pull at in the months ahead.

Some have suggested that several deals with Brussels have already been signed in secret and are nearly ready to go next Wednesday – for example migrants’ right to remain and strengthened defence arrangements in eastern Europe – lending credence to the theory of a broader and grander Article 50 declaration.

This would not only put Britain, faced with such an unforgiving timeline, on the front foot in the negotiations with the Commission, but also allow Downing Street’s press team to control the narrative.

The other possibility would be the announcement of business investment and job creation in the UK. Number 10 may announce positive business private sector investment alongside May’s letter to demonstrate the positives of leaving the EU, taking back control of the narrative.

Announcements on both deals and business investment would ramp up the feel good factor which has been so lacking up to this point.

May will need to make this argument if she’s to satisfy her domestic political audience in what could be a rocky two years for her. She’s unlikely to come out the other side unscathed and will no doubt have to offer some concessions, so a few quick wins could let her accumulate some much-needed political capital. And the ability to show progress in deals elsewhere could help distract from any politically tricky features of the final Brexit deal.

In the few days left between now and then, we will likely find out more about the contents of the Prime Minister’s letter from briefings to the press. Expect some of the inevitable positive announcements packaged up with the declaration to be briefed into the Wednesday morning papers, with a few titbits left behind for the publication of the letter which will likely be mid-morning, followed by a statement in the House.

If Number 10 is really passionate about displaying its control of the narrative we can also expect smaller follow up announcements to demonstrate momentum – an approach often used at budgets (when they don’t unravel).

The Prime Minister has already described the letter as ‘one of the most important documents in our country’s recent history.’ Of course, what the EU27 will think when they meet a month later is another matter entirely.

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