Delivering a third marquee speech on Brexit and the first detailing her ambition for the UK’s new economic relationship with the European Union, Theresa May set out five tests for any deal, saying it must:
- respect the referendum
- be long lasting and sustainable
- protect people’s jobs and security
- be consistent with the kind of country we want to be as we leave: a modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy
- strengthen our union of nations and our union of people.
So far so obvious and uncontentious.
Staying true to the vision she expressed last January the UK will not look to participate in the Single Market, nor be members of the Customs Union and the free movement of people will end. As Adam Jackson, Director of Public Affairs, has outlined before, actions have consequences.
Acknowledging this the Prime Minister detailed measures to address these trade-offs as she “faced up to the hard facts”. Committed to preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland she explained her preference for a “customs partnership” and the use of new technologies. To prevent new barriers to trade she proposed strong commitments to regulatory alignment and standards. To ensure collaboration in areas such as healthcare and aviation there is to be continued participation in EU agencies – including financial contributions. She also promised further work to ensure continued access to skills and the freedom to work and study in the EU.
The fudging of red-lines will come as a welcome acknowledgment of the inherent difficulties the Prime Minister faces in delivering a Brexit that meets her five tests. It will be interesting to see how long these positions hold and whether they unlock progress in negotiations with the EU – particularly reaching an agreement on transition at the EU council later this month.
Domestically the speech received a positive response from across both sides of the Conservative Brexit divide. Those in favour of a ‘harder Brexit’ were reassured by commitments to red lines, while those favouring a closer relationship with Europe found solace in pledges to avoiding a hard border in northern Ireland, regulatory alignment, tariff-free trade and co-operation in areas such as skills and science. Internationally the response has been more cautious.
Whether this speech is enough to secure smooth passage for the withdrawal bill is yet to be seen. A key amendment on remaining in the Customs Union could still defeat the government.
So what should businesses make of this?
While further detail and clarity over negotiation goals are welcome, not much has changed. Negotiations are by their nature uncertain and political volatility in the UK looks set to continue. Timescales are short for the delivery of such an ambitious negotiation. There are many moving parts to the UK’s departure and all it takes is one element to fail for things to change dramatically.
There are things organisations can do now to prepare for any eventuality. Clients may still feel reluctant to do any planning, preferring to wait for exact details, but that may come too late. Envisage what the worst case scenario might be, plan what that would require and know when you would need to start implementing plans regardless of where negotiations have got to.
Asked at the end of her speech whether Brexit was worth it, Theresa May didn’t reply.
Time will tell whether Parliament or perhaps the people will take a clearer view.
May gets down to business on Brexit