Theresa May 'sees Brexit as damage limitation exercise'

The British parliament is to have a final say on the Brexit deal agreed between Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union 
Andrew Woodcock, Press Association

Theresa May's former chief of staff has suggested that the British prime minister has failed to take the steps needed to take full economic advantage of Brexit because she regards the process as a "damage limitation exercise".

Nick Timothy said that Mrs May and many of her ministers "struggle to see any economic upside to Brexit".

And he told the BBC that she should have been much clearer at an earlier point in the Brexit process that all sides of the Conservative Party would have to compromise to get a good result.

One of Mrs May's most influential advisers since her time at the Home Office, Mr Timothy was forced out of 10 Downing Street in 2017 after being blamed by many Tories for the disastrous general election campaign which saw the party lose its majority in the House of Commons.

Speaking to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg for a forthcoming BBC Two documentary entitled Inside The Brexit Storm, he suggested that Mrs May's approach since then has stopped the British government taking the necessary steps to get the most out of Brexit.

Read More: What you need to know about the two Tory advisers who've just quit

"I think one of the reasons we are where we are is that many ministers - and I would include Theresa in this - struggle to see any economic upside to Brexit," he said.

"They see it as a damage limitation exercise."

He added: "If you see it in that way then inevitably you're not going to be prepared to take the steps that would enable you to fully realise the economic opportunities of leaving."

In a separate interview with Channel 4 News, Mr Timothy said that the UK had made a series of "mistakes" in Brexit negotiations, including by allowing the EU to determine the sequencing of talks, which allowed the £39 billion "divorce bill" to be agreed before negotiations on future trade began.

He said the British government should have spent money earlier on preparing for a no-deal Brexit and should have been more "robust" in pushing areas of UK advantage.

"Some of it is to do with negotiating style," he told C4N.

"Theresa was always of the view that the best way to get something out of negotiations, especially in Europe, is to consistently show goodwill and not descend into some of the name-calling and game-playing that sometimes takes place.

"I think her goodwill has sometimes been pocketed without Britain getting much in return."

He added: "Theresa's instincts have been that economically, this is a risk to be managed, but politically this is an opportunity and that main opportunity is to recover control of immigration.

"If you look at it like that, then you see why the deal she has negotiated actually makes sense and is potentially - according to those objectives - something of a success.

"But I think that for those of us who see it in much broader sovereignty terms and also see that there are economic opportunities - as well as undoubted risks to be managed - it doesn't seem quite so successful."

He warned that, under the plans set out in the government's immigration white paper, it was "quite likely" that immigration will increase after Brexit.

Asked if Mrs May had lived up to her promise to be a "bloody difficult woman", Mr Timothy replied: "I think MPs probably think she has."

Mr Timothy rejected as "for the birds" suggestions that he and Mrs May had drawn up the red lines behind her Brexit strategy - including leaving the single market and customs union - without the knowledge of ministers and officials.

"There's a whole machinery around you," he said. "The idea that that would even be possible is ridiculous."

Mr Timothy suggested that leaving the single market and customs union was an inevitable part of EU withdrawal.

"As the country voted to leave the EU, if we are not leaving the customs union or single market, what is it we are leaving?" he asked.

"It was pretty clear from both sides that leaving the EU would mean leaving the single market and customs union. Both sides made that absolutely apparent throughout."

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Timothy addressed the challenges Mrs May has faced in managing her party through the process of EU withdrawal.

"One of the difficulties she's had is that she's tried to take every part of the party with her at different points," he said.

"It would have been better to be clearer that not everybody in the party was going to get what they wanted."

Mr Timothy, who is a supporter of Brexit, said that many MPs write off Leave voters as being "racist, stupid or too old to have a stake in the future".

He described Mrs May's premiership as "not bad, but unlucky", and warned that government mishandling of Brexit risked "opening up space for a populist right-wing party".

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