Chairman's view: Brexit means Brexit

Posted by Bruce Potter on
At least the cards are on the table now. According to the Prime Minister, Brexit means we’re not half in and half out, we won’t be members of the Single Market and we will be a global trading nation rather than one that limits its aspirations within Europe’s borders.

Sounds promising – but whether or not Theresa May’s argument convinces depends on how much we buy in to her new narrative around the reasons a nation voted for Brexit.

In yesterday’s speech, designed to silence critics who accuse the government of having no plan for leaving the EU, the PM framed the referendum result not as a decision marked by a desire to look inward, but as an expression of the people’s desire to broaden our horizons.

Billing the result not as “the moment Britain chose to step back from the world” but as one in which the people “chose to build a truly global Britain”, Mrs May spoke of embracing free trade with the US, China, Brazil, the Gulf States and beyond.

It’s an interesting view of the reasons for the referendum outcome and not perhaps one that will chime with every “Leave” voter. However, it does signal that as the Government begins the difficult process ahead, it wants to be seen to be doing so with open arms rather than closed minds.

Donald Trump has already vaguely promised that the UK will not be “at the back of queue” when it comes to trade with the US, but becoming a global powerhouse from relatively small beginnings will be an uphill journey.

It’s easy to talk, as the PM does, of negotiating a “new and equal partnership between an independent, self-governing, Global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU”, but will be far more difficult to achieve. Even greater will be the task of securing a Free Trade agreement with Europe that is favourable despite the UK no longer contributing to EU funds.

Likewise, Mrs May’s declaration that the government will, in repealing the European Communities Act, convert the body of existing EU law into British law, ready to be changed further down the line where required is far easier said than done.

There are countless considerations in doing so – not least in incorporating decades of EU legislation into our own complex, often archaic legislative framework.

There is also a huge question mark over how much we will still be bound by EU law even if we’re “out” – after all, we will still want to trade in Europe where those laws apply for the remaining member states.

Theresa May made a point of the need to work closely with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, referring to the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations, made up of representatives of each, as playing a key part. Securing a unified approach will be a challenge, as will the task of maintaining the Common Travel area with Ireland while protecting the UK’s tougher stance on immigration.

Stung by challenges in the Supreme Court over the legality of Brexit, yesterday’s speech set out that there would be a vote in Parliament on the “final deal” between the UK and EU. Absent was any detail on how much room for manoeuvre there would be – and whether MPs will get the opportunity to go back and forth on aspects of the deal or whether it will be a matter of everything or nothing.

Lastly came the very telling indication that Brexit will be a long, drawn-out process rather than a rush off, as the PM put it, off a “cliff edge”. The acknowledgement that a transition would be desirable is a major step forward in terms of accepting that Brexit will be long, drawn-out and complex to implement.  Businesses should welcome that admission, although it still needs to be accepted by the 27 EU member states.

Fundamentally, the speech represents a critical acceptance that there is no way we can stay in the Single Market.

For businesses it highlights the real prize will be to try stay inside the customs ring fence, and that is most certainly not a given.  So the debate has shifted, but it remains to be seen if it is any more deliverable.

There is very much a sense that the Government hopes this speech will give everyone a breather, a chance to stop and think and time to tackle some of the knottier problems away from the clamour for answers. Whether Theresa May will be allowed that luxury remains to be seen.

Click here to download our free Brexit guide.

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Bruce advises both private and public organisations on all aspects of commercial, corporate policy and governance advice.

Bruce Potter
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