May’s flip-flops don’t stop. Keep them coming, please!

by Luke Lythgoe | 17.11.2017

The prime minister seems on the point of a u-turn on locking the Brexit date in legislation – reversing a position she announced with fanfare only one week ago. She is being forced to retreat because a posse of brave Tory MPs has been outraged by her silly proposal which could undermine the national interest by boxing us into an unnecessarily rigid timetable.

This would be the latest in Theresa May’s string of flip-flops. The climbdowns are part of a slow and painful process of getting real about Brexit. The prime minister has been in denial about both what she can achieve in the negotiations with the EU and what she can thrust down the MPs’ throats. She has still got a long way to go.

Here’s our guide to May’s other six top Brexit flip-flops since the election and the four main climbdowns she still needs to make.

Honouring ‘divorce bill’ commitments

“The days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end,” said May. But not quite yet. Her Florence speech suggested she was willing to fork out around £18 billion to cover the EU budget gap up to 2020.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the EU. As a result, the prime minister seems on the point of offering more money to break the Brexit talks deadlock ahead of December’s EU summit. Watch this space.

New legislation for Brexit deal

This week May promised legislation to bring the Brexit deal (if there is one) into UK law. This is good news because MPs can amend legislation. But there’s still no commitment about when it will be published nor is the promise written into law. And she hasn’t offered Parliament a say if she wants to crash out of the EU without any deal at all. Further climbdowns are needed.

European Court of Justice

May originally wanted to “bring an end to the jurisdiction” of the ECJ. Since Florence she’s only called for an end to its “direct” jurisdiction.

Transition deal

In her Florence speech, May admitted that an “implementation period” (others call it a transition period) of “around two years” would be necessary after March 2019.

The prime minister then did a double flip by telling Tory Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg that even during the transition period (so, after the UK has left the EU) we will “start off with the ECJ still governing the rules we are part of”. She’s still clinging to the fiction that we may be able to avoid ECJ jurisdiction for all that period. But David Davis, the Brexit secretary, let the cat out of the bag yesterday in Berlin suggesting otherwise – before doing a backflip and restating May’s position on the BBC’s Today programme this morning.

More climbdowns on the transition are in store. May so far hasn’t quite accepted that we will adopt new EU laws during the transition, merely saying it’s “highly unlikely” any new laws will emerge within that timeframe. She’ll have to eat some humble pie on this before she can get a deal.


In the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech, she said: “Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.” This was widely interpreted as a hamfisted attempt at blackmail. By the time she got to Florence, she was saying the UK is “unconditionally committed” to maintaining Europe’s security.

Singapore-style economics

At Lancaster House, May said the UK “would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.” This was understood to mean a deregulated, low-tax economy similar to Singapore. In Florence, she admitted the UK won’t “try and attain an unfair competitive advantage”.

Four more u-turns, please

The prime minister needs to make at least four more climbdowns before she has a realistic position on Brexit.

  • There’s no way of getting a full Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU by Brexit day. The most we’ll get are the heads of agreement.
  • It’s most unlikely that we’ll get an FTA signed, sealed and delivered in her two-year transition. As a result, we’ll need more than two years.
  • We can’t avoid border controls in Ireland if she insists on pulling us out of the EU’s customs union.
  • The future FTA won’t let us have our cake and eat it. The more access we want to the EU’s market, the more we’ll have to follow its rules.

It would be more honest if May accepted all this now rather than prolonging the agony. Not only would our EU partners stop thinking she’s in la-la land, so allowing the Brexit talks to progress. The voters would have a much clearer view of what Brexit means and so be able to decide if they want it after all.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon