We had heard a great deal of Theresa May’s Brexit speech to the Conservative party conference before – to the word, in fact, with the Prime Minister using the same scripted soundbites that she’s deployed as a shield against having to answer questions about Brexit directly. ‘We will not be able to give a running commentary or a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations,’ she told the hall, warning that ‘history is littered with negotiations that failed when the interlocutors predicted the outcome in detail and in advance’. It was difficult not to think of the most recent negotiation where this has happened: David Cameron’s attempt to change Britain’s relationship with Brussels and keep the country in the EU.
May rejected talk of the difference between a ‘soft and a hard Brexit’, saying ‘too many people are letting their thinking about our future relationship with the EU be defined by the way the relationship has worked in the past’. But the most striking line was this, where May hinted at what sort of Brexit she did think was possible:
‘But we will seek the best deal possible as we negotiate a new agreement with the European Union. I want that deal to reflect the kind of mature, co-operative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy. I want it to include cooperation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism work. I want it to involve free trade, in goods and services. I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market – and let European businesses do the same here. But let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.’
Unless there is a significant shift in the negotiating stance of European leaders, this sounds very much as though May thinks Britain will leave the Single Market, which many would define as a ‘hard Brexit’.