Malcolm Rifkind: Theresa May Will Not Be Bullied Over Brexit

Theresa May
Theresa May waves outside the Houses of Parliament as the Home Secretary, on July 7, 2016, London, England. May has explained her opposition to an Australian-style points-based immigration system. Jack Taylor/Getty

For the time being peace has broken out in the British Government and in the Conservative Party over Europe.

The result of the EU referendum, which showed a clear majority of the British public in favour of leaving the European Union, has been accepted. "Brexit means Brexit" is the mantra repeated across all wings of the Conservative party.

So the war has been won but there is still all to fight for in order to win the peace. What does leaving the EU mean? What sort of relationship will the United Kingdom want with the EU? What will the EU be willing to accept?

Although the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, voted to Remain in the EU she has a Euroskeptic background and will not have been too disappointed by the vote for Brexit. But her approach will be pragmatic not ideological. She will have no instinctive aversion to the compromises that are unavoidable in any serious negotiation between governments.

That will, also, be the view of the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. Although he led the Leave campaign he is, in all other respects, a moderate internationalist who will be looking for solutions not problems.

A more hardline approach is likely to be adopted by the other two cabinet ministers charged with handling the detail of what comes next, David Davis and Liam Fox. They have a long history of deep Euroskepticism and will not be unhappy if the U.K.'s future relationship with the EU is no deeper than its relationship with the United States, Canada or other countries around the world.

On issues other than trade in goods and services, they are likely to be disappointed. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, concluded that on many issues covering police, justice, arrest warrants and intelligence sharing the U.K. needs to be part of a common European approach. Without it the battle against terrorism and serious crime would be much more difficult to win. As Prime Minister she will not deviate from that view and will impose her will.

Likewise, as Boris Johnson has declared, Britain will still want to welcome many migrants from EU countries who help staff the National Health Service as well as filling other vacant jobs in our economy. Restoring our own controls will not end immigration from Europe.

The crucial issue on the trade side is whether we go for a customs union with the EU which would limit our freedom to negotiate freestanding trade deals with the rest of the world, or whether we limit our trading relationship with the EU to a free trade bilateral agreement of the classic kind.

That question should not be seen, necessarily, as an ideological question. For many moderate Euroskeptics, such as myself, I would wish to consider the practical consequences of either option. There are significant disadvantages with customs unions as well as benefits. It will be a while before we can be certain where the balance would lie.

The U.K., as the world's fifth largest economy, will survive and prosper whatever the outcome. In the weeks since the Brexit vote Britain has shown its resilience.

There will be significant economic and financial losses as a result of our departure from the EU but they will not be fatal. As we will remain a vibrant, low tax, open economy we will still be attractive for investment and as a country to live in. That is how it should be.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was UK Foreign Secretary from 1995-1997. His new memoir, Power and Pragmatism, (Biteback, £17) is available now.