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Reactions to May’s Brexit speech

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has delivered her much anticipated speech in Florence – billed as an attempt to speed up the somewhat stalled Brexit negotiations.

The UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson listen to Theresa May deliver her speech on Brexit. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell, PA Images

On this blog we’ll be publishing key reactions to her remarks.

09:15 (Saturday morning): Peter Franklin, Writer of our UnPacked page

“Rather than react to Theresa May’s speech, I’d like to react to the reaction. Which was, of course, predictable. The hardliners on both sides believe that the Prime Minister capitulated to the hardliners on the other side.

A different sort of complaint is that the speech was ‘vague’. This makes me wonder what people were expecting. If the PM had set out a series of detailed propositions, then she’d have been accused of arrogance and presumption – i.e. anticipating a deal that is still a long way from being agreed. Even worse, any expression of noncommittal on the part of various EU personages to those details would be written up as a humiliation for the Prime Minister (of which she’s had enough already).

In any case, the speech was not without meaningful content. The Twitterati may complain that they already ‘knew’ about the two-year transition period and so forth, but some of us prefer to wait for the official announcement, rather than applying 20/20 hindsight to the preceding orgy of speculation (which we didn’t waste our time on anyway).

There is, of course, a difference between speculation and genuine foresight. The most valid criticism of the speech is that it should have been given a year ago – and with a little foresight it might have been.”

17:19: Douglas Carswell, former MP for Clacton

“The Prime Minister’s tone was spot on; conciliatory and friendly.  The danger with ex-Remain ministers is that they sometimes take on a certain kind of John Bull brashness, imagining that that’s how Leavers think. We don’t, and there was none of that today – just a genuine desire to want good relations with our friends and allies in Europe once we have left the EU.

Most of the substance of what Mrs May said was exactly right, as well.  British courts will safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK.   But it will be British courts that have jurisdiction. She made it clear that we are not going to be shadow members of an EU customs union, left to transpose decisions made by EU institutions into UK law. On honouring our payment obligations, Mrs May said the right thing.  And anyone surprised by what she said on a transition deal hasn’t been paying attention. One or two pundits who complain that Mrs May didn’t address issues like regulatory divergence still don’t seem to have grasped what leaving the EU means.  Having your own rules is what happens.

What if the “intransigence” of Michel Barnier (above with David Davis) isn’t a bluff? Douglas Carswell wants preparations for a “no deal”. Photo from Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images.

The only thing that bothered me was what Mrs May didn’t say;  what do we do if there’s No Deal? Barnier’s intransigence this summer might not be a bluff.  It’s the EU position. Having made it clear no deal is better than a bad deal, we need to see a Herculean effort by ministers to make all the legal and technical arrangements that are necessary if no agreement is reached. Unless we do so urgently, sacking intransigent Cabinet secretaries if necessary, we might find we’re forced to take whatever ends up on the table. In Machiavelli’s city, Mrs May needs to recognise that that’s the game the other side may well play.”

16:26: Ian Birrell, UnHerd columnist:

“The good news is Theresa May offered some olive branches towards the other side in these negotiations, accepting this was an unwanted distraction and that Britain accepted the need to pay some bills to Brussels. There was none of that dismissive Brexiteer arrogance that backfires so badly. But there was little more to cheer in this damp squib of a speech by a dismally weak prime minister, so deluded she seems to think the eyes of the world are on our island nation as it seeks to extricate itself from Europe. I doubt her speech made many ripples in Boston, let alone Beijing.

May has capitulated with pathetic predictability to party hardliners. She conceded with total clarity that post-Brexit Britain will not be a member of the single market or customs union. Yes, there will be a transition period in a nod to the sensible wing. But for all her bravura talk of being creative – the speech’s Boris-style buzz word – there was little detail on how to achieve a bolder deal than the recent Canadian free trade agreement that took seven years to resolve despite being much simpler.

Ian Birrell: Britain’s “dismally weak prime minister” is “so deluded she seems to think the eyes of the world are on our island nation as it seeks to extricate itself from Europe. I doubt her speech made many ripples in Boston, let alone Beijing.”

This speech might have sounded fine before May triggered Article 50 with such terrible lack of preparation and before she wrecked her government in an election. But as divided Britain prepares to crash out of Europe, the prime minister is strapped to the ejector seat and still fumbling with the parachute.”

16:20: Charlotte Pickles, Editor of UnHerd’s work on capitalism.

“Vacuous, verbose and platitudinous”. That was the verdict a friend of mine received from a university tutor at the end of a term studying 17th century Britain (incidentally, also a period of historic change for our nation). Sadly, I was reminded of the phrase listening to the Prime Minister’s Florence speech.

Yes, it was the metaphorical hug she should have given Europe the moment she became Prime Minister (“It does not mean we are no longer a proud member of the family of European nations”). Yes, it made clear Britain’s intention to stand with, not against, our European allies (“we want to be your strongest friend and partner as the EU, and the UK, thrive side by side”). And yes, its tone was positive and open (“I am optimistic about what we can achieve by finding a creative solution”). But as important as all that is – and I don’t underestimate its diplomatic value – 5,300 plus words later and I’m no clearer on what Brexit looks like.

That’s the rub. I agree wholeheartedly that Britain and its 27 EU partners need to be “creative”, that it is in everyone’s interest to design a bespoke model, but just stating it (repeatedly) won’t make it happen. Indeed, Theresa May’s repeated referral to “my speech at Lancaster House earlier this year” only served to reinforce the sense that we’re no further on. The clock is still ticking Prime Minister, even with an ill-defined “double lock” transition period.”

16:08: Former UKIP leadership contender Suzanne Evans kicks off this reaction blog with a very downbeat assessment:

Suzanne Evans launching the Ukip manifesto in 2015. Picture by John Stillwell, PA Images.

“Theresa May has betrayed Leave voters with her speech today. She has capitulated without a whimper to the EU and to No. 11 Downing Street, most significantly backing down on taking back control from the EU when Article 50 has run its course by March 2019.

Crucially, the implementation period May proposed today came with no time limit. We heard a two-year estimate, but got no guarantees. This is a disastrous because it gives the green light to Brussels to delay, frustrate and spin negotiations out for as long as possible.

What guarantees May did give were shocking: guarantees that during this implementation period the UK will continue to pay into the EU budget, heed EU regulations and directives, continue with EU free movement of people, and allow the ECJ influence over our courts. In other words, she guaranteed the continuation of everything we voted against until at least 2021, and possibly well beyond that.

It seems May has neither the courage to walk away from a bullying EU, nor to lead us into the full, optimistic, global Brexit we voted for – and which is the only kind of Brexit that will work. Either that, or she is deliberately keeping us tied to the EU until the next general election when, after all, there will be a clear opportunity for the referendum to be reversed. Whatever is going on in her head, her current position is a cynical and nauseating abuse of the largest ever democratic mandate in British history.”