Can government stick to these 12 promises in Brexit talks?

by Luke Lythgoe | 28.03.2017

Theresa May and her ministers have made a number of strong commitments ahead of Brexit talks – and that’s before you consider the wild promises such as giving an extra £350 million a week to the NHS pledged by Brexiters during the referendum.

Here’s our guide to how likely the government is to keep its word.

1. EU budget

“We will not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House Speech, 17 January

The prime minister will struggle to keep this promise if she wants a deal. The EU has made clear it is looking for around £50 billion to meet our past commitments – and its legal case looks strong. Perhaps the government will make a huge contribution but argue it wasn’t “required” to or that the money was sent to the EU but not its normal “budget” – or use some other weasel words.

2. Trade with Europe

“A comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.”

David Davis, statement in House of Commons, 24 January

Keeping all the benefits of the single market and customs union while not following their rules seems impossible.

3. Trade with the rest of the world

“Ensuring that there is no disruption of our free trade with Canada, or any other partner, is a top priority for my department.”

Liam Fox, speech to the Toronto Board of Trade, 26 January

Perhaps Fox can engineer a seamless transition on trade with Canada. Pulling off a similar trick with the 50-plus other countries with which the EU has trade deals looks super-ambitious.

4. Scotland

“To build a more united nation … Never allowing our union to become looser or weaker, or our people to drift apart.”

Theresa May, speech to DfID in East Kilbride, 27 March

With Nicola Sturgeon calling for another Scottish independence referendum, it’s quite ballsy for the prime minister to be promising a more united kingdom.

5. Northern Ireland

“We will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

It will take ingenuity to devise a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open, while ensuring EU citizens can’t move into the UK freely via Ireland and honouring Ireland’s commitment to free movement as an EU member state.

6. European Court of Justice

“We will … bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

This promise doesn’t just limit the shape of any future relationship we’ll have with the EU. It could make it tricky to reach a transitional trade deal too. Will the prime minister give herself any wiggle room as the talks progress?

7. Rights for EU citizens living in the UK

“We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can … we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

Well, “straight away” never happened. May’s government even fought an amendment on the issue in the “Brexit Bill”. “As early as we can” could still mean a few months if EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s analysis is correct.

8. Workers’ rights

“Not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

Work on this pledge has apparently already begun, with a “government crackdown” on exploitation of self-employed workers in the gig economy.

9. Research and innovation

“From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

The prime minister said her government would “welcome agreement to continue to collaborate” on science and technology. That’s less straightforward considering May’s stance on EU immigration – just ask the Swiss.

10. Justice and security

“Keep our justice and security arrangements at least as strong as they are.”

David Davis, statement in Commons, 10 October

We should be able to maintain good cooperation to fight terrorism and crime – given that there’s a strong common interest in doing so. But given that we won’t be sitting round the table at the Councils where these things are discussed – and, in some cases, it will be legally hard to fit us into existing structures such as the European Arrest Warrant – the promise that our new arrangements will be “at least a strong” looks optimistic.

11. Migration

“I also remain firm in my belief that we want to get net migration down to sustainable levels and the government believes that is tens of thousands but it will take some time to get there.”

Theresa May, Prime Minister’s Questions, 20 July

The prime minister reaffirmed the government’s migration target, but abandoned David Cameron’s 2020 deadline. It’s a common trick by politicians to set a numerical target without a deadline – or vice versa. It’s hard then to pin them down.

And finally…

12. No cliff edges

“A phased approach, delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit.”

Theresa May, Lancaster House speech, 17 January

A laudable aim, but one that seems totally at odds with Theresa May’s assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Walking away from the EU without a deal would be bonkers, and almost certainly break this promise.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “Can government stick to these 12 promises in Brexit talks?”

  • To Fox, Johnson, Davis and May, promises appear to be only there in order that they can break them. I suspect they will do exactly that and come out still blaming the EU for there own already apparent shortcomings and plain dishonesty.

  • Why do we trigger Article 50 (now the Government has the power to do so) without agreeing the framework of the negotiations including -:

    – sorting out EU citizens’ right here and UK citizens’ rights in the EU27 before triggering the Article 50?
    – agreeing to parallel talks on trade and divorce at the same time
    – perhaps agreeing the broad principles of the divorce settlement

    Surely the EU27 and the Commission want to get on with things and would move on some of this. As it is some of the 2 years will now be taken up with this stuff leaving even less time to actually agree the details.

    • your expectations are unrealistic.

      the moment the UK government set to deliver on Brexit, it positions itself against the EU 27 interests.
      The following months have seen a cascade of inflamming and and antagonising comments by same British officials such as “using EU citizen in the UK as bargaining chips”, along with fantasy expectations of “having their cake and eating it”.

      take a moment to properly grasp this from your opposite negotiating side : it’s not about partnership anymore. it’s traditional power politic negotiation, just like you’d do with any third party.

      that means getting as many concessions from your opposing side while giving as few of yours, or in areas where you hold a competitive advantage.
      by refusing to start negotiations until art 50 is officially sent, the EU 27 boxed the UK government in a time bomb trap of their own, since Brexiteers can’t wait to “leave” and May is therefore pressured from all sides to “deliver”.

      for 4 decades, the UK has pushed European trade diplomacy to extract the harshest terms from third party. now they ‘ll get of their own medicine, while the EU 27 will still work towards mitigating as much of the economic, political and security fallout … but not to the UK benefit, or rather think of it in terms of “negative benefit” : just barely enough not to be called an insufferable cost, but nowhere near as positive as before rexit

      Best regards,