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9 January 2017

No, really, Theresa May isn’t bluffing: we’re heading for a hard Brexit

There is no reason to believe that Britain will remain in the single market or anything like it. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s big interview yesterday has sent the pound plunging, again.

The odd thing about it is that she said very little that was new, at least as far as Brexit is concerned. She reiterated that for Britain, Brexit means that we will no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice and that the United Kingdom will control its own borders.

Neither are compatible with anything other than exit from both the European Union and the single market – what is popularly called a “hard Brexit”, though May herself rejects the claim.

But one of the British industries that is thriving after the Brexit vote is the cottage industry of analysts who listen to May speak and then conclude that actually she can’t possibly mean it, that these positions are leading to a hard and disastrous Brexit, and that some kind of fudge will be produced.

After all, “control of our borders” could mean anything, couldn’t it? (Or so the argument runs.) We control our borders now, but we’ve chosen to cede a measure of control in order to enjoy the benefits of single market membership. We could achieve the same after Brexit.

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There are just two small problems. The first is Theresa May herself. She believes that unless the centre-right is seen to have brought immigration under control, the far-right will do it. And she’s already shown a willingness to put border control before keeping the public finances watertight as far as higher education is concerned, with her racheting up of visa restrictions put universities under increasing financial pressure.

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The second problem is called the Conservative Party. Let me be plain: a Tory Prime Minister who attempted to sell the idea that Britain’s single market membership consisted of us “controlling our borders” as we could leave at any time is not going to remain Prime Minister for very long.  A Conservative leader who brings back a deal that involves the European Court of Justice setting British regulations will be out on their ear faster than you can say “John Redwood”.

If it wasn’t clear enough already: Britain is heading for the hardest of exits.