Theresa May makes a sensible case for a soft Brexit

The Prime Minister’s speech was her best since she campaigned to Remain - and it was hard not to take the same conclusion from it.

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I always enjoy the beginning of Theresa May’s speeches: the analysis of the problem is always lucid, crisp, and well expressed. The difficulties usually emerge in the second half, when the solutions tend to either be leftovers from Ed Miliband’s manifesto or some half-baked reckons from the comments underneath a Mail article.

This speech was a departure from the usual. May laid out well the problems presented by Brexit, for both the European Union and the United Kingdom, and set out a reasonable and rational solution that could prove enduring. Listening to her, I was reminded of my own struggles with the New Statesman’s morning briefing, where I continually grapple with the need to avoid words like “win” “contest” and “big” in order to avoid tripping Whitehall’s firewall and prevent our readers getting their daily dose of Morning Call. The Prime Minister was doing something similar: trying to set out a sensible way forward for the United Kingdom after Brexit without using any of the keywords that make Brexiteers uneasy.

So there was a lot of talk about an “implementation period”, a coded word for a stand-still transition period in which everything will remain the same but the United Kingdom will have no say in the rules of the European Union. There was a sensible softening of the government’s position on the role of the European Court of Justice, accepting that it will continue to play a role albeit a diminished one, in British regulation. There was an acceptance, again, that the United Kingdom will continue to pay some money to the EU after Brexit. And although it was very subtly done, May confirmed that in order to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom will have to remain in close regulatory and customs alignment with the European Union after we leave.

Smart Brexiteers fear that Theresa May is feeding them plenty of rhetoric in order to pass a soft Brexit through Parliament when October runs around, and there was plenty of evidence to support that thesis. May’s hope of success now hinges on two things: one, does a critical mass of the Conservative Party notice? And two: will Labour find an excuse to vote against any deal regardless? If either, let alone both, of those things happen, May’s troubles may be about to get a whole lot worse.

All in all, though, it was the Prime Minister’s best speech on the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom since her excellent speech on why we were better off in the EU on 26 April 2016. The difficulty is it was hard not to come to the same conclusion.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.