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6 takeaways from Theresa May’s hardline Brexit speech

by Hugo Dixon | 03.10.2016

Theresa May isn’t just heading for a hard Brexit. She has made clear that the government – rather than MPs or voters – will decide what happens next.

That’s the main conclusion from the prime minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference. It was backed up by David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary – although Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is still fighting to soften the economic blow.

Here are six specific takeaways.

1. Brexit will be hard

May was uncompromising about controlling migration and not submitting to supranational laws. Here’s one of several quotes: “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.”

This would seem to rule out membership of the single market because our EU partners are equally uncompromising on how we can’t have that unless we allow free movement of people. The best we’ll be able to get is a free trade deal that gives us partial access to the market.

2. That new EU deal won’t be coming soon

Experts, that much derided group, have known for long that it won’t be possible to cut a new EU trade deal in the two years provided for our divorce talks under Article 50. It will take many more years. The prime minister seems to accept that cutting a new deal will be a separate process from the basic Brexit one. In her speech she says that one of the things we will do as an independent, sovereign country – as if we’re not one already – is “negotiate a new agreement with the European Union”.

3. Theresa May wants to behave like Elizabeth I

She insists: “It is up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone.” The prime minister is claiming the royal prerogative, an antiquated pre-democratic residue of our constitution, to take this momentous decision. MPs will not have a say. She even says that those who argue that she needs parliamentary approval to take this step are trying to “subvert” democracy and “insulting the intelligence of the British people”.

May’s view of the constitution is being challenged in court later this month. But whatever the outcome, it is not anti-democratic to argue that parliament needs to be closely involved in the process of defining what Brexit means. One could even say that, given how much noise the Leave camp made about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, it was insulting the intelligence of the electorate to suggest otherwise.

The PM plans to trigger Article 50 by end-March next year. This is not a smart move given that we can’t expect serious discussions until after the German elections next autumn. So we’ll be wasting a quarter of our two-year negotiating period. What’s more, May’s hope that we can have preliminary talks before we trigger Article 50 seems likely to be dashed. A tweet by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, suggests there’s no compromise on the mantra that there will be no negotiations before notification.

4. Talks will be behind closed doors

The prime minister doesn’t plan to tell parliament or the people much about the Brexit talks until they are finished. Her justification is that: “History is littered with negotiations that failed when the interlocutors predicted the outcome in detail and in advance. Every stray word and every hyped up media report is going to make it harder for us to get the right deal for Britain.”

Whether she’ll be able to keep the lid on the talks is another matter. After all, 27 other countries will be in the process – meaning it will be nigh impossible to stop leaks. Given that the Leave camp did so little to spell out what Brexit means, it is also frankly “insulting the intelligence” of voters to deny them a chance to debate the precise form that Brexit takes.

5. Scotland won’t have much say

Although May will consult the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on what they want from Brexit, she asserted that “the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are the responsibility of the government and nobody else.” Such hard talk will make it more difficult to get the Scots to buy into Brexit and so increases the risk that the UK itself may break apart.

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6. PM may behave like Henry VIII post Brexit

May has promised a “great repeal bill” to remove the EU’s jurisdiction once we quit the EU. Initially, all EU law will be transposed into UK law. But, thereafter, parliament will be able to repeal or amend any law it doesn’t like.

The prime minister has given two assurances: that workers’ rights will be guaranteed so long as she is in Downing Street; and that “any changes in the law will have to be subject to full scrutiny and proper parliamentary debate”.

There are doubts over this second assurance. Given the sheer volume of legislation that will need to go through parliament, pro-Brexit lawyers have been arguing that the act repealing EU jurisdiction should give the government authority to change specific laws via statutory instruments – a form of second legislation that involves limited parliamentary scrutiny. If May does want this authority, she would be mimicking Henry VIII, who passed legislation giving him the right to rule by proclamation.

Did the British people vote for a hard Brexit that could damage the economy? Did they vote for the UK itself to be put at risk? And when they voted for “control”, did they vote for the prime minister to behave like a Tudor monarch? If the answers to these questions are “no” – as they probably are – voters should have a chance to say whether they really want to quit the EU once May has completed her Brexit deal.

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts. You can sign up as a supporter here.

6 Responses to “6 takeaways from Theresa May’s hardline Brexit speech”

  • A hard Brexit is in fact the only route the government can take. Nothing about a soft Brexit will see the “UK” end up in a position that is at best even slightly better than what the nation was in as a fully paid up founding member of the EU. How sad half the country has talked itself into thinking that this deluded position is better for the UK. If as a result the Scots decide to break away from the UK the English have only themselves to thank. The treatment meted out by May to the Scots (and the Irish with their still fragile peace process) is well below par in terms of dealing with respected partners. This is a dangerous road to take with respect to trade, education, finance and employment.

  • 3. Is it not possible to claim the royal prerogative not to invoke Article 50 at all?
    Royal prerogative trumps advisory referendum.

    4. Let us hope the European Commission insists on open negotiations. The negotiations would be an opportunity for the European Union to demonstrate that it is a better friend to the British people than our own government is proving to be.

  • @Colin Keppel

    re your point 4.

    as a European citizen, once the UK send official notification of art 50, it can only be considered as a departing member-state, that is an opposing party.
    negotiation are not between “friends”, but meant to secure the interests of the EU-27.
    Practically, it is neither the duty nor the overwhelming interest of the EU-27 to open their discussion for the sake of the UK citizens, simply because they feel afraid or powerless to dare ask such openess from their own government.

    Please pardon my rudeness, but to argue your case, you shouldn’t wait for others to fight your battles.
    Especially in this case, the broken democracy, with a government exhibiting authoritarian tendencies is the UK one.
    Ms May should not even be considered a PM at this stage, since she hasn’t received any public legitimacy for this role.
    And the disgraceful lies shouted by half the current cabinet during the referendum (by either side of the debate) should make them unfit for public offices.
    At best, they both (Ms May and the Cabinet) should have been a caretaker government while general elections were held within a 3-6 months timeframe.
    Instead, all can witness a right-wing coup having taken place.
    Let’s remember that the current crop of conservative MPs at Westminsters got slightly more than a 1/4 of the votes from the total population (a 1/3 of ballots cast), yet have 50% of the seats under the FPTP system, after indulging in widespread vote-rigging (over-spending and illegal mailing all over the country, but especially in marginal, once Lib-Dem-held, constituencies).

    Any citizens mindful of the rule of law and democracy, should be out there and camping in front of Nr 10 and Westminster 24/7, holding signs to call for a general election and despising the current electoral power thievery.

    That’s not something the other EU member states or institutions are responsible for.
    It’s up to the British themselves.

    As it is, I ask forgiving for my blunteness, but you are a sorry excuse of a shame democracy, unfit for the developped world. Stand up for yourselves first.

    Best regards,

  • How did the UK get from its situation on 22 June to this pending fascist dictatorship? Cameron opened Pandora’s box and out flew all the nastiest, most despicable and ignorant traits of the English.

    Then Cameron ran away, leaving his country and his party in the hands of this harpy.

    It seems impossible, in any civilised nation, for such a naked bid for power to occur. Why is there not blood in the streets? I’d offer mine, but as I am a pensioner in France I can’t afford the fare.

  • Not long ago the New York Times published an article regarding the referendum, stating that, “It isn’t often a nation volunteers to commit suicide, but it appears the British electorate have done just that.” For me that sums up the whole tragic mess that these thoroughly dishonest and corrupt politicians have landed us all in.