Look at all May’s U-turns. There is no good Brexit deal

by Luke Lythgoe | 04.12.2017

With one flip-flop after another, Theresa May’s withdrawal deal with EU leaders is now a far cry from her bullish vision in January’s Lancaster House speech.

The prime minister may have prostrated herself to Jean-Claude Juncker today and still come back empty handed. But this isn’t because Brussels is being beastly. Her frustration is due to hostile, incompetent negotiating tactics, and the simple fact that there never was a good Brexit deal to be had.

Here is our definitive run-down of the government’s dizzying U-turns to reach this point.

The order of the talks

The EU wanted so-called “divorce” talks to happen before any discussion of the future relationship or trade. The UK wanted both done in “parallel” talks.

David Davis said this would be the “row of the summer”, but the Brexit secretary caved in to the EU on the first day of talks on June 19.


May’s Lancaster House speech promised “vast contributions to the EU every year will end”. In April she demanded a “detailed outline” of a future trade deal before the UK agreed to pay any money. In July, Boris Johnson told the EU to “go whistle”.

The government has since agreed to a potential £50 billion to move talks on to trade.


The government originally argued a transition deal was unnecessary. In March, Davis told MPs a transition in which we paid money and kept free movement was “plainly not what we are after”.

In her Florence speech in September, May laid out an “implementation phase” carried out “on current terms”, with free movement of people, EU rules, regulations, and payment into EU programmes all continuing.

European Court of Justice

May was clear at Lancaster House: Brexit would “bring an end to the jurisdiction of the ECJ in Britain”. It turned out this didn’t include “indirect” jurisdiction.

The government has already suggested this could be okay in the case of securing the rights of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and to stay in the EU’s aviation safety regulator. Expect further sectors (nuclear, chemicals, drugs) to follow suit.

£350 million a week

May has never lied about an extra £350 million a week for the NHS after Brexit, but lets her foreign secretary repeat it regularly. It became clear just how detached from reality this was when Philip Hammond forked out an extra £3 billion in the recent Budget for Brexit contingency planning and just £2.8 billion for the NHS.

U-turns yet to come

Even if she does achieve “sufficient progress” in the first phase of the Brexit talks, that won’t stop May flip-flopping. Below are just a few more to watch out for.

  • Withdrawal deal: Differences remain on “a couple of issues”, says May. But Brussels will continue to play hardball on money and citizens’ rights even into phase two.
  • Ireland: Today the UK agreed “continued regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic in order to move talks forward. The DUP took the chance to remind London that they won’t accept “any form of regulatory divergence” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So the circle hasn’t been squared yet.
  • New EU rules: Just to get a transition deal, May will likely have to agree to accept any new rules the EU passes. So far she’s dodged this by claiming few new rules will pass during the two-year window. Which brings us on to…
  • Transition time frame: May’s “strictly time-limited” transition period of “around two years” could be ditched when it becomes apparent this isn’t long enough. More money and further new EU rules are a logical consequence of extending the transition.
  • Renewing EU trade deals: Liam Fox plans to have “up to 40” trade deals between the EU and other countries ready to be copied over to the UK “for one second after midnight in March 2019”. This is more complicated than he’s letting on.
  • The final deal: May talks of a “bespoke” deal with trade “as frictionless as possible”. Leaked EU papers suggest the best she’ll get is similar to the EU’s free trade deal with Canada.

Ultimately, as it becomes clear frictionless trade and an invisible Irish border are out of reach, even fundamental decisions about single market or customs union membership could be reversed. The more concessions are made, the more unworkable Brexit looks and the more likely it could be abandoned altogether.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    2 Responses to “Look at all May’s U-turns. There is no good Brexit deal”

    • The UK government continues not to understand the nature of the Union that the EU represents. Hence it believes that the three prior conditions to be fulfilled before Trade talks can begin are negotiable. For the EU however negotiations properly speaking will only start with talks on Trade once the three prior conditions have been satisfied; they are in fact not negotiable because they represent commitments that MS enter into as MS of the EU. For Mr Davies to say that the UK ‘s position on the Irish Border will only be given once it knows the terms of the future Trade deal with the EU illustrates this point. He sees the matter as one of give and take. But the commitments of the EU with respect to the Good Friday Agreement are not of this type.
      Once again it shows how little understanding exists in Westminster of what the EU is really all about.

    • The PM and Government must in their heart-of-hearts know that it is all going pear-shaped. So the strategy now is, keep debate and democratic discussion inside or outside of Parliament to an absolute minimum, don’t release Brexit Impact papers until the Brexit Bill is safely through the Commons, and keep all fingers and thumbs crossed that it passes into law before it’s too late for it to be reversed.