‘A Global Britain’ promised the slogan behind Theresa May as she delivered her big Brexit speech. It was robust and well-judged, very much in the tone of The Spectator‘s leading article endorsing Brexit – she even used the same ‘Out, and into the world’ language we put on our cover.
The referendum, she said, was ‘a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination and to and become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.’ She spoke so persuasively about the case for Brexit that you almost forgot that she campaigned (or, at least, voted) against it. But after a decent period of reflection, her conversion to Brexistism is now complete. She lambasted the EU for failing to handle the ‘diversity’ of the continent and hailed David Cameron’s negotiation as a ‘valiant final attempt to make it work for Britain.’ But the ‘blunt truth, as we know, is that there there was not enough flexibility’ to satisfy the public. She said there’ll be a parliamentary vote on her the final deal, although she would not be drawn on whether, if she loses the vote, this means that Britain would stay in the EU. (The currency markets misunderstood this point and the pound has surged).
Here are the points that jumped out to me.
- She condemns the EU’s ‘vice-like grip’. As she put it: ‘Our continent’s great strength has always been its diversity. And there are two ways of dealing with different interests. You can respond by trying to hold things together by force tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect. Or you can respect difference, cherish it even, reform the EU so it better responds to the wonderful diversity of its member states.’
- And warns it EU it not to play nasty. “I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path. That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend.” Self-harm, presumably, because she’d retaliate in a trade war. So if they want to play nasty, well they can go ahead. Make her day.
- No to the single market, no to the EU Customs Union. She wants a Free Trade Agreement instead. ‘What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the Single Market’ as that would mean ‘not leaving the EU at all’. She didn’t use the phrase “customs union” but said she does not want to be “bound by the Common External Tariff” – thereby spelling out, here, what had started to seem rather obvious. Turkey, for example, is a member of the Customs Union – Britain won’t be and is, ergo, free to cut trade deals with whoever it likes. ‘Brexit must mean control of the number of people to come to Britain from Europe’ she said. I suspect whoever is Prime Minister in 2025 will be explaining why Brexit didn’t make such a dent to those figures. She said she wants ‘greatest possible access to the single market’ – access is the wrong word. Afghanistan has full ‘access’ to the EU markets; it pays tariffs but there’s no question about access.
- No ‘associate membership’ or any other kind: ‘We seek a new and equal partnership. Not partial membership of the EU, associate membership or the EU, or anything that leaves us half-in, half- out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries, we do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave. No, the UK is leaving the EU and my job is to get the right job for Britain as we do.’
- A “transition period” to follow Brexit. ‘It is in no one’s interest for there to be a cliff edge’ she said. So a deal within two years and then ‘a phased process of implementation’ will begin so businesses have ‘enough time to plan and prepare’. Some phasing-in would be longer than others. ‘We will do everything we can to phase in the new arrangements we require as Britain and the EU move towards our new partnership.’
- Pretends she’s worried about uncertainty over EU nationals. ‘Where we can offer certainty, we will do so’ she claimed. Well, that’s pushing it a bit. She is in the position to offer certainty to the 2.8m EU nationals in Britain but she refuses to do so, preferring to use them as bargaining chips. This is an awful policy, adopted in haste. It does not become her, and she should drop it. She was shameless enough to blame other EU leaders for the uncertainty that she was created, saying they won’t cut a deal now. Nothing is stopping her acting unilaterally.
- ‘A Brexit that works for the whole United Kingdom’ she said. She is very respectful of the devolved administrations, but she has no hope of satisfying the SNP. Their objective is to the breaking up of the UK, to spoke the wheels of Brexit – and to declare the whole thing an anti-Scottish stitch-up. This will happen no matter what Theresa May offers.
- We’ll keep the Irish – UK relations with Ireland predate our EU membership so won’t be affected. The 1949 Ireland Act guarantees ‘non-foreign’ status to all Irish nationals and assures them rights of permanent settlement here.
- Unlike Cameron, she’s prepared to walk out of talks. Attempts to punish Britain for leaving, she implied, would be met by her getting the next flight home and reverting to World Trade Organisation low-tariff rules (which I suspect she’ll have to do anyway). “While I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” She had said this recently, in the parliamentary liaison committee, but didn’t think the point gathered much attention so she restated it here.
- And she’ll heal the wounds of the UK referendum campaign She spoke at the end abiut the 65 million people ‘willing us to make this happen’ – a rather optimistic assessment given that polls show a nation still quite bitterly divided. She rather cheekily called for unity: she has been the one who, even in her New Year message, spoke about Brexit as a battle between the privileged and the rest. But she now wants to position herself as the conciliator, and a woman of action.
She had already given as much detail about her negotiating strategy as anyone could reasonably ask for; now she has given some more. It’s clear, coherent and with the right mix of ambition and resolve. A pretty good basis on which to start negotiations in April.
You can listen to the whole speech here:
And for Coffee House Shots analysis where I’m joined by Isabel Hardman and James Forsyth, listen here: