Ladies and gentlemen, on the 23rd of June the British people voted for change. And this is going to be the biggest change for a generation: we are going to leave the European Union. It was we, the Conservative Party, who promised the British people a referendum. It was David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister, who honoured that promise. And now it will be this government, a Conservative government that will lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into a brighter and better future.
This must be a team effort. And I am proud to count myself part of Theresa May’s team. I don’t know what it is about our great women leaders, but aren’t we lucky that they’re there when we need them? I remember hearing the first one, Margaret Thatcher, talking about the difficulties a woman in politics faces. “To get to the top,” she said, “a woman has to be twice as good as a man. Fortunately,” she said, “This is not difficult.” Back in 1979, her government had to confront some huge challenges. And today, just as then, we are at a turning point in our nation’s story. Just as then, people have voted to chart a new course for our country – to transform Britain. And just as then, there is no shortage of doom-mongers, telling Britain that it can’t be done. Ladies and gentlemen, Britain showed them it could be done. We proved them wrong then, and with your help, Britain will prove them wrong again.
Our destination is clear. Once again, we are going to be a nation that makes for ourselves all the decisions that matter most. Once again: all decisions about how taxpayers’ money is spent, taken here, in Britain. Once again: our laws, made here, in Britain. And yes, our borders controlled here, by Britain. But, ladies and gentlemen, the task is bigger than this. It isn’t just about the terms on which we will leave the EU. Nor just our future relationship with the EU. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Britain to forge a new place for itself in the world. And to make our own decisions about the sort of country we want to be. A nation that is a beacon for free trade. A force for social justice. A defender of freedom. The home of enterprise. Of tolerance. Of fairness. Of decency. A nation where we celebrate the success of those who want to get on, but never forget those who need our help. Above all, a steadfast respect for democracy, and the people’s right to decide their own destiny. After all, democracy was what the referendum was all about. The task now is to bring together the 17.4 million people who voted to leave and the 16 million who voted to remain.
Now, I was one of the 17.4 million. But of course there are those of you here today will have taken a different view. I am delighted that many who argued for Remain are now focussed on making a success of Brexit. But there are some, on both sides of the argument, who want to keep on fighting the battles of the campaign. I say to them: the campaign has finished. The people have spoken. The decision is made. So whether you were for leave or for remain, help us seize the opportunities that are now before us. As a One Nation government, our job is to make Brexit work for everyone. For every part of our society. For every part of our country. For each of the four nations that make up our great United Kingdom.
While building a national consensus at home, we shall approach the negotiations with our European neighbours in a spirit of goodwill. We need to appreciate and respect what the European Union means to them. They view it through the prism of their own history – sadly a history often of invasion and occupation, dictatorship and domination. So it is not surprising that governments elsewhere in Europe see the European Union as a guarantor of the rule of law, of democracy and freedom. We’ve always seen it differently – and to be honest, that has been one of the problems. After all, we were the world’s greatest liberal democracy for over a century before we joined. We joined a common market, an economic community. We have never really been comfortable being part of what is in reality a political project. We are now leaving that project. And this gives an opportunity, not just to clear the air, but to create a more comfortable relationship with our European neighbours that works better for all of us. In the negotiations to come, of course, we will act resolutely in our national interest to deliver the right deal for Britain. That does not mean we want the EU to fail. On the contrary, we want it to succeed. A poorer, weaker Europe is not in our interests, any more than it is in Europe’s interests. So we will not turn our backs on Europe. We never have; and we never will.
Our history shows that when the democracies of Europe are threatened by common challenges, we stand ready to help shoulder the burden. That has always been true, and it always will be. Whether it is helping to rebuild the Balkans; standing up against a belligerent Russia; helping to tackle the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean – of course we want to play our part. Nor does pulling out of the European Union mean pulling up the drawbridge. That’s also not in our national interest. We will always welcome those with the skills, the drive and the expertise to make our nation better still. If we are to win in the global marketplace, we must win the global battle for talent. Britain has always been one of the most tolerant and welcoming places on the face of the earth. It must and it will remain so.
When it comes to the negotiations, we will protect the rights of EU citizens here, so long as Britons in Europe are treated the same way – something I am absolutely sure we will be able to agree. And to those who peddle hate and division towards people who have made Britain their home: let the message go out from this hall, we say you have no place in our society. But the clear message from the referendum is this: we must be able to control immigration. Did you hear Mr Corbyn last week, telling us all there’s no need for any limit on numbers? Have you ever heard a political party quite so out of touch with its own voters? Let us be clear, we will control our own borders and we will bring the numbers down.
Ladies and gentlemen, I quite understand that some people are desperate to know exactly how we are going to proceed, who think we should provide a running commentary on every twist and turn of the negotiation ahead. Well, I’ve never met anyone doing a business deal who thinks it’s a smart idea to give away your bottom lines in advance. So I’m not going to apologise for taking exactly the same approach. I’m reminded of the story of Calvin Coolidge, the American President who famously said so little that he was nicknamed ‘Silent Cal’. One night at a formal dinner, a guest tried to lure him into conversation. To no avail. Increasingly desperate, she said: ‘But Mr President, I made a bet that I could get you to say more than three words.’ Coolidge replied simply: ‘You lose.’
Now I have little in common with Calvin Coolidge, but I hope in the next few months you will forgive me if I am a little more taciturn than my usual self. There is another way that I think that we should be careful with our words. On both sides of the Channel, we must resist the temptation to trade insults to generate cheap headlines. There has been some bluster in the aftermath of the referendum, perhaps inevitably. But these negotiations are too important for that. Instead, we should all think carefully about where our common interests lie.
Britain is one of the strongest defenders of Europe’s freedom and security. So it makes perfect sense for us to have the strongest possible ties after we have left the EU. The same goes for trade. History shows that the easier it is for us to do business together, the better it is for both Britain and Europe. We’re looking at all the options. And we’ll be prepared for any outcome. But it certainly won’t be to anyone’s benefit to see an increase in barriers to trade, in either direction. So we want to maintain the freest possible trade between us, without betraying the instruction we have received from the British people to take back control of our own affairs.
And it is in all our interests to ensure that, as our country leaves the EU, the process is orderly and smooth. I know some people have suggested we should just ignore the rules, and tear up today the treaties that we’ve entered into. I say, that’s not how Britain behaves. And what kind of message would it send to the rest of the world? If we want to be treated with goodwill, we must act with goodwill. So we will follow the process to leave the EU which is set out in Article 50. The Prime Minister has been clear that she will start the formal negotiations about our exit by the end of March. As we prepare for those negotiations in Europe, we also need to prepare for the impact of Brexit on domestic law.
We will consult widely, with Parliament and the devolved administrations, on our plans. But it’s very simple. At the moment we leave, Britain must be back in control. And that means EU law must cease to apply. It was the European Communities Act which placed EU law above UK law. So that is why we are saying today, this Government will repeal that Act. To ensure continuity, we will take a simple approach. EU law will be transposed into domestic law, wherever practical, on the day we leave. It will be for elected politicians here to make the changes to reflect the outcome of our negotiation and our exit. That is what people voted for: power and authority residing once again with the sovereign institutions of our own country. That way, when we leave, we will have provided the maximum possible certainty for British business – and also for British workers. To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying “When we leave, employment rights will be eroded”, I say firmly and unequivocally “no they won’t’. Britain already goes beyond EU law in many areas – and we give this guarantee: this Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.
Ladies and gentlemen, in today’s fast-moving world, technology respects no boundaries. The rewards for enterprise and innovation are greater than ever. It’s only nations that are outward-looking, enterprising, agile and fleet of foot that will succeed and prosper. And I believe that when we have left the European Union, when we are once again truly in control of our own affairs, we will be even better placed to confront the challenges of the future. We start from a position of strength. Let’s not forget what we have to build on. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world. We’ve got the English language, spoken by one and a half billion people. We’re the home of international standards for everything from medicine to law. A science superpower. A world leader in research and the arts. A trailblazer in biotech, in digital, in pharmaceuticals. A byword for excellence in manufacturing. A global centre of finance. A permanent member of the UN Security Council. A leading member of Nato, the Commonwealth and the G7. A nation whose brave armed forces, and – yes, Mr Corbyn – our vital nuclear deterrent – make us a truly global player. So I’m confident about our future. I’m confident about our new place in the world. And to anyone who says that the cards are stacked against us, I say “think again”. Many times in the past, our forebears have risen to the challenges before them. Now it’s our turn to show the world we’ve got what it takes. We may be a small island, ladies and gentlemen, but we know that we are a great nation. So as we chart this new course for our country, let’s be confident. Let’s seize the opportunities now before us. And let’s make Britain greater still.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.