This article originally appeared on the website of Prospect Magazine.

23 November 2016

Theresa May is holding the course. No running commentary on how the government is preparing for the upcoming Brexit negotiations — with No 10 slapping the wrist of cabinet ministers who have occasionally gone off script (ask Boris Johnson or Liam Fox).

Somewhat inevitably, this strategy means the government is currently more exposed to criticism for “not having a plan” on Brexit. According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, 48% of respondents believe the Prime Minister and her cabinet have so far done “a bad job” of handling the UK’s exit from the EU —  with 37% taking the opposite view and 15% undecided. Think also of the reception among the UK and foreign media of the now infamous leaked Deloitte memo — which then turned out to have been written with no access to or input from any governmental department.

Nonetheless, the truth is this is the only strategy that makes sense for the time being. The government cannot show its hand because there is no hand to be shown yet. At the moment, everything and nothing is possible. We are at a stage when ministers and officials are holding meetings with stakeholders from all sectors of the British economy in a bid to collect as much information as they can while a clearer negotiating plan is drawn up. If the government were to take a more talkative approach, the most likely result would be a raft of contrasting reports that could, if anything, convey the impression of even greater uncertainty — not to say utter confusion.

The moment will come when the government will shed more light on the broad thrust of its negotiating plan, and that will have to happen before the Article 50 EU exit mechanism is set into motion — especially if the Supreme Court confirms the need for a vote in parliament. The parameters of the UK’s strategy will need to be in place by the end of March 2017, the deadline which Theresa May has set herself to trigger Article 50. Voters need to be patient, frustrating though it might be, as the direction of travel is going to become much clearer in just a few months’ time.

At that point, we will most likely be told that the UK needs to leave the customs union — or face serious constraints in negotiating its own trade deals with the rest of the world. We will probably also find out that the UK intends to leave the single market — or face the risk of a car crash with the EU-27, currently more united than ever in stating that the “four freedoms” (free movement of goods, services, capital and workers) are not separable. And we will know more about the “positive offer” the UK plans to pitch to its European counterparts on a number of crucial issues, which could include: security, defence, development aid, counter-terrorism and police cooperation. There is also likely to be a desire to explore how the UK’s withdrawal from the EU can be phased via transitional arrangements.

I believe these indications would go a long way in overcoming what appears to be a common misunderstanding amongst many on both sides of the Channel. The upcoming Brexit talks cannot be a mere replay of David Cameron’s renegotiation. The UK really is on its way out. This is no longer about the UK re-negotiating the terms of its membership of the EU or trying to rewrite the rules of the single market — which, unfortunately, still seems to be the view in many European capitals. As such, these talks need not simply be a narrow discussion on what level of access to the single market the UK can get in return for what kind of limits on the free movement of workers.

Once this is clear and in the open, the aim of the Brexit negotiations will be to come up with a brand new framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU-27. Within this broad framework, there will be almost infinite shades of grey to negotiate over in detail. Needless to say, this will not be an easy task. But it will be helped when everyone around the table is clearer about the direction in which the UK intends to head.