- We’re leaving the Single Market. It was always clear that taking back control of our laws, borders and money, as 17.4 million people voted to do, required us to leave the Single Market. It has been clear that Theresa May was committed to doing since at least October, when she told the Conservative Party Conference: “…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.” Today’s speech was even more explicit: “I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the Single Market….we do not seek membership of the Single Market.”
- May wants a “comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. Importantly she wants this to include services as well as goods, given the UK’s large services exports.
- As we advised, she is prepared to walk away. Last week Paul argued that “May’s message must be: no deal is better than a bad deal”. And so it came to pass: “I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” This is crucial to the success of the Brexit talks – not only must the Prime Minister say she is willing to walk away, but she must mean it and be believed by those she is negotiating with. Her case today left no doubt about that, and therefore ticked an important box.
- In practice, we’re out of the Customs Union, too. As Continuity Remainers’ hopes of just ignoring the referendum result faded, they moved on to fancies of staying in the Single Market. Now that has been ruled out, most will abandon the position (though not, it seems, Anna Soubry, despite Nick Boles’s good advice). Their fallback was going to be holding out for Customs Union membership. May’s language was a little less explicit on this topic:
“I do not want Britain to be part of the Common Commercial Policy and I do not want us to be bound by the Common External Tariff. These are the elements of the Customs Union that prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries. But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.”
What does that mean in practice? Essentially the Prime Minister is proposing a bilateral customs deal between the UK and the EU, and inviting the Customs Union to change to match it if it wishes. She doesn’t mind if the eventual arrangement retains the name “the Customs Union” and has other members if needs be, but her demand is that for the UK to be a member of the Customs Union, the Union must ditch its distinguishing features. If it prefers not to, we won’t be a member of it and will have a customs deal in another form. So really she is ruling out Customs Union membership, too.
- Parliament will get a vote (but what it gets to vote on is key). One demand of both former Remainers and the minority who seek to block Brexit outright has been that Parliament should get a vote on the eventual deal. This always seemed very likely to happen – for legal as well as political reasons – and today May confirmed it. What matters more, and wasn’t elaborated on, is what the vote will be between. The Tim Farrons of the world no doubt dream of a vote in which the rejection of May’s deal would mean staying in the EU. But the reality will be very different – it’ll no doubt be a vote between accepting leaving the EU with May’s deal or leaving the EU with no deal at all – as we’ve been pointing out for some months. A Parliamentary vote on the deal isn’t a threat to Brexit at all, regardless of what some might like to imagine.
- It’s getting harder and harder to Remoan. The options for throwing up chaff to try to obscure the realities of Brexit are becoming more and more limited. It was already dishonest to pretend a “Soft Brexit” including staying in the Single Market was a serious option – well, now it’s absolutely definitely off the table. May’s critics demanded detail on her priorities, while insisting they did not demand blow-by-blow details of her negotiating strategy – well, now they’ve got it. Opponents of Brexit wanted a Parliamentary vote on the deal – well, they’re getting one, even if it won’t be the vote they fantasised about. At each stage, the options to obstruct become more limited, and the arguments left to May’s opponents look more and more silly. She’s gaining ground and cementing her position. Article 50 and the Great Repeal Bill are now the two main points of risk, and the former now only looks at risk of a potential delay rather than outright rejection..
- She struck a conciliatory but firm tone with EU leaders. The content of the speech will have gladdened many Leaver hearts, but we shouldn’t forget that large tracts of it were actually addressed to the leaders of the EU and its member states. She wants them to understand that she is a tough negotiator (see the above point about being prepared to walk away) but not an enemy – as she assured them that she wants security co-operation and productive trade to continue, and that she hopes the EU will succeed, it was a stark contrast with the tone Nigel Farage takes when addressing the same people in the European Parliament. She didn’t tiptoe round the realities – reminding her counterparts that punitive barriers to trade would be an act of self-harm – but she presented herself as a grown-up who wants friendship, not mud-slinging. With a fight between pragmatists and dogmatists coming in Brussels, she’s presenting a calm voice to appeal to the former.