Brian Monteith: Teresa May looking for a Brexit ‘clean break’

Prime Minister Theresa May on the first day of the Conservative party conference at the ICC in Birmingham. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May on the first day of the Conservative party conference at the ICC in Birmingham. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
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The Prime Minister has done well to avoid the false choice between a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, writes Brian Monteith.

Since Theresa May stood outside Downing Street to accept her unelected ascendancy to Prime Minister and announced that “Brexit means Brexit” she and her government have been ribbed repeatedly for her populist vagueness.

She stood accused of providing little more than a meaningless tautology because she was unwilling to reveal the details of the Brexit process or the expected outcomes.

Whether Mrs May was being coy until she could calm the nerves of her newly formed government so that they could move together as a united unit (let us remember she had not yet even appointed her ministerial team at that point), or whether she was trying desperately behind the scenes to establish what her party would agree to (given the still raw divisions that had opened up during the referendum), there can be no doubting now what Brexit will mean.

Yesterday on the first day of the annual Conservative conference and in a variety of interviews she and her ministers clarified exactly why Brexit would mean Brexit.

In speeches and close cross-examination by interviewers it was confirmed that following our departure from the EU the UK would leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, establish new bilateral trade agreements with countries that are queuing up to strike a deal with us and full control of migration will return to the control of the UK parliament.

The unequivocal consequence of those three clarifications is the UK must be outside the EU’s Single Market and its Customs Union, for it is not possible to repudiate the decisions of the ECJ or negotiate bilateral deals if a country is inside them. Likewise, the free movement of workers, with the detailed rules interpreted by the ECJ is a central tenet of the single market.

The UK will not, said Theresa May, be regaining its sovereign ability to control its own laws, taxes and borders only to negotiate them away again.

There is, of course, as much as two years of negotiation to come from whenever Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered, which we were also told would happen no later than the end of March next year (my money’s on sooner), so the details still need to be fleshed out.

No carping politician or commentator, however, can fairly say we do not know what the delivery process, timescale and broad shape of Brexit will be.

Theresa May has made clear her government’s position as much as she dare before negotiations start in earnest, what we have yet to hear is whether or not she believes that no deal with the EU, will be better than a bad deal, but that may yet come.

To the Prime Minister a bad deal, if her words are to be taken as sincere, must mean giving up those aspects of “taking back control” and “regaining national sovereignty” over sovereign lawmaking, trade and migration that she has already signalled as sacrosanct, to gain a preferential trade deal with the EU’s single market.

If such favourable terms on access to the single market are not offered – and that would be an act of self-harm for Germany, France, Italy and many others – then no deal it would be and the rules of the World Trade Organisation would be her fall-back position.

No doubt the government is already working out what exactly this would mean in terms of economic consequences and necessary adjustment, but it should be remembered that the WTO rules are the same terms that the US, Japan and China trade currently with the EU to great effect.

Defining the language of politics is crucial if you want to influence the outcome of debate, so it is encouraging that the government is not allowing itself to be bounced into deciding between what is being called a “hard” or a “soft” Brexit.

Hard Brexit appears to be simply thumbing our noses at the EU and leaving immediately.

I mix with all sorts in the shimmering kaleidoscope that is the Brexit movement, but it is a position I have heard very few people advocate.

A Soft Brexit appears to mean we agree to open migration and no bilateral trade deals in return for unfettered access to the single market.

This appears to be a position put mostly by remain campaigners who hope that trying to negotiate such a position might mean the UK never leaves the EU at all.

Last week former Chancellor Norman Lamont made a useful intervention when he argued that this terminology was an absurd distraction when what was required was a “Clean Brexit” - where there was a degree of certainty about what would happen, the time it would take and the relationships that the UK would have after the event.

By contrast, a “Messy Brexit” would be something that dragged on and on, gave no certainty to businesses looking to invest here or abroad, would leave our ex-pats overseas or EU nationals resident here none the wiser about their status and, despite all the assurances given to farmers, fishermen, research scientists and universities about the future, there would be uncertainty that promises would be met.

On the assumption that the democratic vote will be respected a “Clean Brexit” must surely be what we all want, an optimal degree of clarity and certainty with an assurance of a time limit for it happening.

Yesterday Theresa May and her Ministers sought to take us down the path of a Clean Brexit, one that will allow her to complete the mission by Spring 2019 before going to the polls the following summer.

If she can pull it off and say without serious challenge she has delivered for the 17.4 million who voted to leave – including the forty per cent of Labour voters, and a third of Scottish nationalists too – then there can be little doubt the Tory majority will increase significantly.

Labour will face being out of power for at least another four years, probably longer given the distance the party will then have to make up the following general election.

The question on the EU referendum ballot paper was whether or not the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union.

The result then for Mrs May is clear: not only does Brexit mean Brexit, but leave means leave, and she intends it to be as clean a change as possible.

l Brian Monteith is a director of

Global Britain


The Prime Minister has done well to avoid the false choice between a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, writes Brian Monteith