There is a recognisable repetition in Theresa May’s speeches about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union: “Brexit means Brexit”, making “a success of it” and getting “the best deal” for Britain are some of her stump phrases. But a closer look at her speeches suggests her position on key aspects of Brexit has evolved since she took office in the aftermath of the June 23 vote to leave.
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Together with public comments by ministers in her Conservative government, the changes appear to suggest May has shifted from favouring a “hard Brexit” – a clean break with the EU’s single market of 500 million consumers – to supporting continued membership of that market if possible.
May has declined to say whether she wants Britain to remain in the single market. Her aides say she is considering all options.
Since July 13, when May made her first speech as prime minister, subtle changes have emerged in the way she describes her priorities for talks with the EU. Those talks will determine Britain’s future, and that of the EU.
Early on in her tenure, May said little more than that she wanted “the right deal” or “best possible deal” on the trade of goods and services with the rest of Europe, which account for more than 50 percent of the British economy.
But at the Conservative Party conference in October, she unveiled a more specific phrase to describe her aims for Brexit. “I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the single market – and let European businesses do the same here,” May said.
Richard North, a former speech-writer for several eurosceptic lawmakers, says the phrase “operate within” is telling.
“She is very, very precise and there is no way that she is saying anything other than she’s going after the single market within a negotiated settlement,” said North, who wants Britain to remain a member of the broader European Economic Area trading zone after leaving the European Union.
A spokeswoman for May said the government was “going for a bespoke deal” and declined to comment on speculation of what that agreement might look like.
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EU officials, investors, companies, opposition lawmakers and leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland often complain about the lack of detail offered by May on Brexit.
At her first EU summit as prime minister on Oct. 20-21, some European leaders said they had learnt little more beyond her public statements that she will trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to start divorce talks by the end of March, and that she wants the best deal for Britain.
In her Oct. 2 speech to the Conservative Party, she dismissed the choice between a “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit” as a “false dichotomy” and said Britain could regain control over immigration and its sovereignty while continuing cooperation on security and trade.
“Let me be clear,” May told the conference. “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.”
Her tough wording on immigration and sovereignty may have pleased the eurosceptics in the party, but it spooked some European leaders who felt she was heading for a “hard Brexit”.
It contradicts the EU position, which states that the bloc cannot divide its four freedoms – of movement of goods, capital, people and services.
But May has also regularly qualified her vision for controlling immigration from the EU. At a meeting with Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, in Bratislava on July 28, she referred to needing to find “a solution that addresses the concerns of the British people about free movement”.
A week earlier, she told German Chancellor Angela Merkel “it may take some time” to get net levels of immigration down to sustainable levels.
And in a phone call with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Sept. 27, May subtly softened the message again, referring to trade first.
She said it would be “a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services, but we would also need to ensure we had more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe,” a statement read.
Since ruling out a points-based system for screening people heading for Britain in September, May has said little new on controlling immigration, something she earlier called the “very clear message” of the British people in the referendum.
This week, talking to business leaders in London, immigration did not figure in her speech at all.
Instead, May has increasingly focused on business concerns.
That may have been prompted by the big fall in sterling since the referendum, according to sources close to the government.
Financial markets seem not to like the idea of a “hard Brexit”. Scotiabank economist Alan Clarke said the market was acutely sensitive to any hints from Downing Street.
“I guess it’s no accident that when her language pointed to a hard Brexit…the pound weakened,” he said.
Financial and business sectors have begun lobbying May over the divorce.
On Oct. 27, three weeks after she said she wanted to “give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the single market”, she said she had assured Japanese carmaker Nissan to help it decide to build two new models in Britain.
True to form, she has given little away on what those assurances were. At an EU summit six days earlier, she had called on leaders to look at the single market “in a new way”.
While May fine tunes her strategy, her reticence to get specific has offered opposition lawmakers an opportunity to poke fun.
“I thought for a moment the prime minister was going to say ‘Brexit means Brexit’ again,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said to roars of laughter in parliament in October.
“I am sure she will tell us one day what it actually means.”