Theresa May signals that the UK is heading for hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's demand for control of immigration and laws means Britain will leave the single market.

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Midway through her opening speech to the Conservative conference, Theresa May rejected the popular distinction between “soft” and “hard” Brexit. The reason soon became clear: the Prime Minister has embraced the latter.

Since entering Downing Street, she has maintained the pretence that the UK could control the free movement of people while remaining in the single market. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, was rebuked by No.10 for suggesting that the combination was “improbable”. But in her address, May signalled that the UK will leave not just the EU but the single market.

Though stating that she wanted to give UK business “the maximum freedom to trade with”, she warned: “Let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.” To translate, if the UK cannot achieve this within the single market (as is the case), it will leave it. Though her stance is politically defensible, many businesses fear it will prove economically ruinous. May’s mission is to convince them otherwise.

Before her defining words on the single market, she used her speech to take aim at a succession of opponents. May damned those, including some Conservatives, who “didn’t like the result” and hoped to overturn it (“oh, come on!”). But she also rejected a “sudden and unilateral withdrawal” (as advocated by the hardest Brexiters). The UK will trigger Article 50 before the end of next March and will officially leave two years later (in time to avoid the 2019 European elections).

To those who charge her with excessive opaqueness, she warned that “history is littered with negotiations that failed when the interlocutors predicted the outcome in detail and in advance.” Did she, David Cameron could have wondered, have any recent examples in mind? George Osborne, who May sacked, was similarly scorned. “There is still some uncertainty,” May said of the economy, “but the sky has not fallen in, as some predicted it would”. No “punishment Budget”, she implied, would be needed.

May ruthlessly dismissed Scotland’s demand to have a seat at the negotiating table. “Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom.  There is no opt-out from Brexit.  And I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”

Though neither Labour nor Jeremy Corbyn were mentioned in the speech, May signalled her intention to conquer new political territory. Workers’ rights, she vowed, would not merely be “protected” but “enhanced”. Having addressed Brexit, May will turn her attention to domestic policies for the “just managing” families she spoke of again. Labour and the Tories, she believes, have been guilty of an excessive focus on the rich and the poor.

But, after months of mockery, May’s speech will be remembered as the moment when she told us that Brexit means hard Brexit. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.