May speech makes it clear: We’re leaving the single market

May all but confirms Britain will leave single market
May all but confirms Britain will leave single market
Ian Dunt By

It’s now obvious Britain is leaving the single market.

Of course, Theresa May spent much of her speech to the Tory party conference today insisting there was no such thing as a hard or soft Brexit. But there is. Continued membership of the single market is a soft Brexit and leaving the single market is a hard Brexit. We are going to have a hard Brexit. And worse - it’ll be a chaotic hard Brexit.

The suspicion grew throughout the speech. The language was tough and all the old vague slogans, such as freedom of movement changing from how it ‘worked until now’, were jettisoned. It was clear that in a decision between border control and membership of the single market, May was going to pick border control.

She then went further. She said the European Court of Justice would no longer have power over British courts. Even this technically still meant we could remain in the single market. After all, an Efta compromise which would keep us in the single market has its own court. But the strength and manner of the speech made it clear she was aiming for a hard Brexit.

And then came the crunch moment: “We're going to be able to make our own decisions on how we label our food.”

It seems innocuous, but it was quite clear what it meant. Membership of the single market entails following regulations on goods and services. That means that yes, decisions are arrived at on the nature of packaging and even the workers’ rights when they make it. This is regulatory equivalence. It is clearly not something Britain will continue to be part of.

It was a very different type of comment to what we’d seen before. Previously, comments on the single market were restricted to the need to reform freedom of movement. Now, she was rejecting the notion of single market regulation on goods.

That’s it: the bottom line. We are going to leave the single market. She did everything but say it.

When May claimed there was no such thing as hard or soft Brexit, what she meant was that she’d already ruled out soft Brexit.

Clearly, May’s vision of Article 50 negotiations will be to make sure there are no tariffs on trade and no non-tariff barriers either. The latter are mutual recognition agreements which means products can pass over borders without being stopped and detained and tested. This will require a trade deal. Otherwise, a reduction in tariffs would be seen as discriminatory under WTO rules.

In years to come, this will be seen as one of the most disastrous speeches ever made by a prime minister. Not only did she propose a goal which will devastate the British economy, she also gave away her own meagre leverage in securing it.

Britain will be trying to secure a trade deal, which usually takes about seven years, in a two year timetable. Given that it is a trade deal she will clearly be negotiating, it won’t be decided by majority, but by each member state. In some it may even require a referendum. In places like Belgium, it’ll require the agreement of local government in addition to national government. Basically, even if by some miracle she could negotiate the deal in time, she has no chance of ratifying it.

There are ways of dealing with that time problem. You can try to get an interim EEA deal. Or, perhaps more realistically given her rhetoric, leverage the uncertainty over when to trigger Article 50 to ask for an agreement that the current arrangements continue if no deal has been struck in time.

Instead, May bafflingly gave a date upon which to start negotiations. She announced it, in an offhand way, while speaking on the Andrew Marr programme this morning. She did so so flippantly that one wonders whether she even realised it gave her leverage.

Afterwards, she  asked Europe for preliminary talks. This is how Donald Tusk responded: “Once Art. 50's triggered, EU27 will engage to safeguard its interests.”

It was a clear no, followed by a robust statement of self-interest. It is a preview of the type of treatment she can expect once she goes to Brussels.

When the talks begin, she will discover that Europe does not even need to debate trade with us. The vague wording of Article 50 means it’s up to them. They can make it all about administrative divorce proceedings if they like. They now have all the cards.

The lunatics at the Tory conference applauded all of this. They cheered the Union, even as May announced the greatest strain she could possibly impose on it. They cheered when a speaker mentioned Gibraltar, even though it was now at risk like never before. They cheered dreams of British economic greatness, which are now in jeopardy precisely because of the policy they were jubilant about

May appears strong but she has wrapped herself in her own straitjacket. Everything now is in the hands of Europe.

If there is any hope it is with those who are still prepared to speak the things which are in front of their eyes. People who are still prepared to say that losing tariff-free access to our biggest market is not wise, that putting investment at threat is to handicap our own prospects. People who will point out that a two year timetable to unravel four decades of law and create a substantial trade deal is not realistic. People who believe that by having open borders and an open society, Britain is stronger and more beautiful and more successful. People who believe that sabotaging Ireland and pushing away Scotland is not how one keeps the Union together. People who recognise that a 52% vote on a vague question is not a mandate for the most radical possible interpretation of a referendum result.

The next few years will see uncertainty and British isolationism start to cause demonstrable harm to the economy. Those who recognise the insanity of our current path must keep making that point and avoid the deterministic piety of those who demand we ‘get over it’. It’s by making the case for reason, liberalism and internationalism that we can best influence the debate when the repercussions of our current foolishness become impossible for even the Brexiters to ignore.

Ian Dunt is editor of

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners


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