For someone who vowed not to give a running commentary on Brexit, Theresa May sure dropped a lot of hints today.
And by dropping hints, I mean she dropped huge truth bombs right into the middle of all the ‘oh but what’s the plan?’ speculation Westminster has been covered in like all that snow we were promised but never got.
The stand-out line which made people either clutch their pearls or wave their flags – depending on which side of the argument they were on – was that the UK will be leaving the Single Market.
No ifs, no buts, as her predecessor once remarked.
I’m still baffled as to why people are acting surprised by this. May has always made it clear she prioritised immigration controls above all things, and EU leaders consistently maintained you can’t be in the Single Market and not accept the free movement of people.
The next big announcement was around the customs union, with May saying the UK would not continue to be a member as it currently operates. Again, this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. If the UK remained in the customs union completely then we wouldn’t be able to sign our own trade deals, meaning Liam Fox was completely wasting his time flying round the world and shaking people’s hands. And that would be a real tragedy.
However, she did suggest a bit of a hokey-cokey arrangement, where the UK could be half in and half out of the customs union, with some sectors abiding by the rules where others are free not to. It is here that the true negotiation will take place.
The two really brand spanking new bits of the speech came at the beginning and at the end. Parliament would indeed get a vote on the deal once it had been completed. Some Remainers, such as Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, thought this would be a choice between the Brexit deal and staying in the EU.
Alas, as Brexit Secretary David Davis confirmed later in the Commons, it will be a choice between taking the deal on offer or going out into the world without any deal at all and reverting to World Trade Organisation rules.
Now that would be a Brexit so hard you could knock down the Eiffel Tower with it.
The other piece of information worth noting was that May would try to get a transitional arrangement for the UK after the two-year negotiation period was up. This option is particularly popular with the financial sector, which fear their ability to trade with the EU might change overnight.
A transitional arrangement would give everyone some time to sort their lives out. Sure, we’re getting divorced, but you can sleep in the spare room for a few months until you find somewhere else to live. (But you have no more tariff-free access to the tea and milk and freedom of movement into my bedroom is strictly off-limits, I don’t care how drunk we get.)
Yet even with those two ever-so-slight concessions to the Remainers, this was clearly a day of celebration for Leavers who wanted a full fat Brexit. Nigel Farage and others took to Twitter to praise the PM. Labour’s Chuka Umunna, a prominent Remainer, took a different view, and in a blog for Huff Post called the speech “extraordinary”: “This is self-harm, not statesmanship.”
My view is that today the PM announced a Hard Brexit, but perhaps not a Fast One.
I’ll be back clogging up your inbox on Thursday with a normal Brexit Briefing.
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