It’s telling that UKIP’s leader has given Theresa May’s Brexit speech 7/10. The prime minister couldn’t sell any softer Brexit to Tory hardliners. The fact that May has put party before country means we are heading for a destructive Brexit.

May had choices. She could have asked the EU to stay in the single market and the customs union. But that would have involved keeping free movement of people, following the EU rules without any vote on them and paying into its budget, while hamstringing our ability to cut new trade deals with other countries.

May has, at least, been crystal clear about what she wants. She is taking us out of both the single market and the customs union. But clarity doesn’t make her decision any less damaging – and it’s not just the economy that will be hurt. 

Yanking us out of the single market gives Scottish Nationalists an excuse to break away from the UK – even though May says “preservation of our precious Union [is] at the heart of everything we do”. Meanwhile, pulling us out of the customs union raises concerns that a hard border will be reimposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, potentially undermining the peace process, although she says one of her priorities is to stop this.

The prime minister also says she wants to avoid a “disruptive cliff-edge” when we quit the EU, but it’s hard to see how she’s going to achieve that. May has the unrealistic ambition of wrapping up an ambitious new trade deal with the EU in the two-year period after she triggers Article 50. That period will be swallowed up by negotiations on the brass tacks of our divorce, as well as ratification of any deal.

The sensible choice would have been to ask for a transitional deal – during which we would stay in the single market and customs union while a new long-term arrangement was finalised. May has all but ruled that out.

Negotiations could also be fraught. May is right that it would be foolish for the EU to punish us for quitting; but it was also unwise for her to threaten to retaliate by turning us into a tax haven if they do.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s imminent arrival in the White House and his pro-Putin, anti-EU NATO-sceptic rhetoric is triggering the hive instinct among the EU’s remaining members. Britain’s attempts to suck up to the president-elect means we risk being viewed as part of the problem. In the circumstances, May’s laudable desire to “work together more” with our EU partners to safeguard our security will be tricky to deliver. 

Final vote

The prime minister did say that any final deal agreed with the EU will be put to a vote in both Houses of Parliament. This may look like an important concession.

But May didn’t spell out what rejecting a deal would mean. Nor has she accepted MPs’ demands that parliament has sufficient time to consider and vote on a final deal. The suspicion is that she will present parliament with a treaty so late in the day that the only alternative is to fall off a precipice with the result that there’s no real option but to say yes.

We already have reason to distrust her weasel words. The prime minister agreed to produce a plan before triggering Article 50. Now Downing Street is saying that her speech, which lacks any numbers or proper analysis of options, amounts to that plan.

Most voters are, at present, inclined to give May the benefit of the doubt. But if she comes back with a seriously bad Brexit deal, our currently cowed MPs must summon up the courage to demand a vote quickly enough to be able to reject it. They should then call a new referendum to see whether the people still really want to leave the EU.

by Hugo Dixon | 17.01.2017

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