Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
13 June 2012updated 02 Sep 2021 5:42pm

Theresa May’s bizarre speech leaves the United Kingdom on the verge of a no-deal Brexit

In a statement that at times bore an only cursory relationship to reality, May further decreased her own room for flexibility. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has rounded on the European Commission and her fellow heads of government in a speech which takes the United Kingdom ever closer to leaving the European Union without a deal.

The Prime Minister, whose proposals for the final Brexit deal have no realistic prospect of winning a majority in Parliament or winning support in the European Union, called on European member states to lay out their own proposals for the final EU-UK relationships in an astonishing statement that at times appeared to be barely adjacent to reality.

The truth is that the other 27 member states and the Commission have been crystal clear: the United Kingdom can either have a distant “low regulatory freedom, high market access” arrangement or Norway style deal, or a “high regulatory freedom, low market access” arrangement in the manner of Canada.

A Canada-style deal would require either a regulatory border in the Irish Sea – unacceptable to the DUP, whose support is vital to sustaining the Conservative government in office – or a hard border on the island of Ireland itself, unacceptable to Ireland, which as a member state holds a veto over the final free trade agreement. Neither arrangement could secure a majority in the House of Commons as it currently stands. The so-called “backstop” agrees that, in the event that the EU and the UK are unable to reach an agreement, Northern Ireland will remain within the regulatory orbit of the European Union, creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea: an arrangement that May now describes as unacceptable despite having signed up to it in December 2017.

May’s Chequers’ proposals – which she doubled down on – please nobody. In the United Kingdom, they contain far too great a degree of rule-following for supporters of a Canada-type arrangement, but they provide too little market access to be supported by those who want a Norway-style deal. As far as the EU goes, the pick-and-mix of rights and obligations that May chooses are also unacceptable, as member states fear they risk unravelling the single market. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Is there any hope of avoiding a no-deal exit? Optimists will hope that the important part of May’s speech was not the sabre-rattling but the brief statement that the United Kingdom will bring forward alternate proposals to the backstop that maintains the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom: likely a proposal that the whole of the United Kingdom would have full regulatory alignment with the bloc in the absence of agreed solutions. But with so much goodwill eroded among the EU27 and with that deal very far indeed from what Conservative Brexiteers want, it is unclear whether that arrangement could win support among the EU, let alone at Westminster.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up