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22 September 2017

Here’s what Theresa May should say in her Brexit speech – but probably won’t

Despite the “all will have prizes” rhetoric of the government there will be at least some losers.

By Stephen Bush

Four-thousand-two-hundred words in the Telegraph, two-and-a-half-hours of wrangling in the cabinet, and a flight to Italy later, Theresa May will deliver her big Brexit speech today. 

Just as with the forthcoming Taylor Swift album, we’re all hoping that the full record will be better than the pre-released extracts, but it doesn’t exactly look like a floor-filler at the moment. It’s long on optimistic paragraphs about the greatness of the United Kingdom and the European Union but short on realism.

What we do know is that the PM will commit to paying the UK’s budget obligations not just until the end of the current budgeting period in 2020, but for a further year until 2021 as part of a two-year transition. As the British government, let alone the British economy, is in no way equipped to immediately leave on 30 March 2019, this isn’t really the gracious concession that much of the British press is presenting it as, but Downing Street has done well to secure some positive(ish) headlines on it.

On the rights of the three million European citizens living in the United Kingdom, the FT‘s Alex Barker reports that May will propose that these rights are codified and protected in the withdrawal treaty. The idea being that no one in the EU27 wants the rights of EU citizens to have no protection beyond the whims of 325 MPs in the House of Commons, but the government has ruled out the continuing role of the European Court of Justice in domestic matters after we leave. 

So, progress, at least on two of the three issues relating to divorce, and depending on the fine print, perhaps even enough to make “significant progress” in the words of Michel Barnier’s mandate from the EU27 to discuss future relationship.

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That just leaves that third issue: the wee problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It’s this, one assumes, that the flowery passages about the need for “creativity” in the face of challenges.

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The thing is you can talk about “creativity” until you’re blue in the face, but if, as the British government wants, the United Kingdom has a different regulatory and trading regime to the EU27 after Brexit, ultimately you have to have some kind of hard border somewhere on the island of Ireland. Whether that’s a land border separating the United Kingdom from the Republic or customs checks at ports with some kind of special status, at least some people in Ireland will have to experience some kind of loss of identity.

Now, it may be that overall there are more winners than losers. But it’s undeniable that despite the “all will have prizes” rhetoric of the government there will be at least some losers.

It’s the same with the post-Brexit drop in the value of the pound. It’s good news for manufacturers and domestic holiday destinations. It’s bad news for private households and businesses that buy from the eurozone. Just as it doesn’t do those who want to reverse the referendum any good to pretend it’s all bad, it doesn’t do the government any good to pretend everything is rosy, either.

This is where Theresa May’s status as a member of the politically undead should allow her to do discourse, the country and indeed the electoral prospects of her party a favour by talking frankly about the fact that even a successful Brexit has trade-offs, some of them painful. She hasn’t taken any of the opportunities to do that so far and it doesn’t look as if she will take this one either.