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May’s Big Brexit Speech: Three Things We Think You Should Know

Today Theresa May gave her much publicised ‘Road to Brexit’ speech in central London, in a venue on a closed road. The speech had been sold as an opportunity to hear more detail about the government’s approach, and after a couple of weeks of cabinet ministers giving individual speeches and ongoing pressures from her party, the stakes were high.

The foundation of the government’s plan for Brexit has been shaped around five tests for our future relationship with the EU: to respect the result of the referendum (as defined by the government) by taking back control of border, laws and money; reach a long term agreement that won’t break down; protect people’s jobs and security; be compatible with the country we want to be - modern, open and outward looking; and strengthen the union of the United Kingdom. 

But has anything actually changed after today’s speech? Here are our three big takeaways:

1. Hard choices and compromises

One of the most notable parts of May’s speech was the admission that the UK will not get everything we want out of Brexit. May also stated that that the government have accepted the UK will have less access to EU markets post-Brexit – while would probably be the case with any Brexit deal, it’s doubly true now because the government have ruled out membership of both the customs union and the single market.

This is probably the first time the government has accepted there will be compromises in EU negotiations, is it a sign we might have a more realistic approach from here on, or laying the groundwork for some U-turns later on? We’ll have to wait and see.  

2. A realistic approach to the Irish border?

The EU didn’t mince their words on the Irish border issue in their draft agreement for post-Brexit relations this week, going as far as to say that unless there is a mutually agreed alternative, they will assume Northern Ireland remains in a customs union and common regulatory area with the EU to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

The fury we saw from Conservatives and commentators online – some MPs referred to it as an attempt by the EU to ‘annex Northern Ireland’ – missed the point. The EU thinks it’s the UK’s responsibility to come up with a solution for Northern Ireland, and May finally conceded the UK has a bigger role to play in her speech today, stating that, “We chose to leave; we have a responsibility to help find a solution.”

The UK government needs to take a serious look at their red lines and think about an actual solution for the Irish border, not just rely on slogans. The stakes are too high to get this wrong, but with a customs union still ruled out, it’s really hard to see what other options the government could propose. Let’s hope they start proactively looking for solutions, and prepare to give in if the customs union is the only option.

3. The return of the JAMs

The ‘just about managing’ (or JAMs) were an early feature of May’s premiership. In her first speech as PM, May spoke about the persisting inequality faced by people in the UK, and pledged to make her government work for them (our Director Faiza Shaheen wrote about her scepticism on May’s inequality focus at the time).

We’ve seen this language re-emerge in May’s Brexit speech today, but the evidence shows the Conservative approach to Brexit will exacerbate inequality, not reduce it. Leaked impact assessments from the government reveal the areas predicted be hit hardest by Brexit on our current path. Notably, these are both (a) predominantly Brexit-voting and (b) already the most economically vulnerable regions of the UK. For those who voted Leave to change their circumstances, because they felt that the EU wasn’t working for them, it’s grossly unfair to be punished by poor policy decisions that work to deepen the UK’s regional inequalities.

If reducing inequality is a sincere aim of May’s government, she needs to radically change her approach to put together a plan for a post-Brexit UK. Ruling out the customs union and single market early on, primarily to please the most hardline Eurosceptic MPs in her party, did not put fighting inequality at the heart of Brexit negotiations.

What now?

The government has made promises they can’t keep on Brexit. Lack of consideration of how their red lines make vital commitments - like no hard border in Ireland – seemingly impossible has left the UK in a position where ‘no deal’ is still a possibility.

We’re yet to see meaningful commitments on replacing regional funding mechanisms (several areas of the UK are net beneficiaries of EU funding, including Wales and Cornwall) and we’ve heard no real reassurances on how the government will protect jobs in industries where the impact of leaving the customs union and single market could be catastrophic for UK jobs (see the recent business select committee report on the car industry).

Although Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the recognition of trade-offs in May’s speech today, he has often repeated his line that a transition agreement is not a given, and we already know that a cliff edge exit from the EU would be a disaster for everyday people in the UK. At the risk of repeating myself again – we’re hurtling towards needing an actual agreement in October, and the government is running out of time to put realistic proposals on the table.