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  1. Politics
10 July 2018updated 07 Sep 2021 10:16am

Does Theresa May want a hard or soft Brexit?

As Brexiteers resign from the cabinet, a brief overview of the Prime Minister's position over time.

By Calum Bradshaw

Hard? Soft? Deal? No Deal? Free trade area? Customs union? Almost everyone in British politics has had a crack at coining their own form of Brexit, as Jason Cowley notes.

While Prime Minister Theresa May’s catchphrase of 2016 was the enigmatic “Brexit means Brexit”, there is general consensus that a hard Brexit would involve a total severing of formal ties to the EU. Meanwhile, a soft Brexit would aim to maintain some EU links, such as remaining within the single market and customs union. 

Given the turbulent progress of Brexit and the divisions within her party, Theresa May’s aims have often been less than entirely clear. So are some Brexiteers right to suspect her of leading the UK towards a soft Brexit? Or are Remainers correct to complain that she would recklessly let the UK crash out of the EU without a deal?

In the 2016 referendum, Theresa May backed the Remain campaign, but she was not particulalry vocal in her support. She had voiced doubts about the European Convention on Human Rights, but also argued that leaving the EU would be “fatal for the Union with Scotland”.

Once she became Prime Minister, May’s Conservative Party general election manifesto promised a hard line on Brexit, stating that: “We continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.”

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Since then, in the face of uncompromising EU negotiators and under pressure to find a solution on the island of Ireland, May has moderated her promise. In her Mansion House speech this year, she acknowledged the need for trade-offs in the final deal

Last week’s Chequers meeting produced a softer blueprint for the way ahead, with an end to the free movement of people played off against a “combined customs territory” between the UK and the EU, and “a common rulebook for all goods”. Hardliners in the cabinet objected to this, with Boris Johnson claiming that “we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit”, and that the Brexit “dream is dying”.

With the resignations of Johnson and David Davis over the current state of the Brexit plan, there’s a chance that a softer Brexit is on the cards, regardless of whether Theresa May wants it or not. This is down to the fact she is increasingly reliant on the votes of opposition parties, most of which oppose hard Brexit. 

It is important to remember that whatever agreement the UK government comes to, it must also be approved by the 27 EU member states. This, too, could have a big impact on the shape of the final Brexit deal. 

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