Theresa May was received with muted rapture in the hall in Birmingham today, by a party that cannot quite believe that, since its last annual conference, the country has voted to leave the EU and they have a new leader and Prime Minister.
The lack of triumphalism felt strange, but it reflects something that Patrick McLoughlin, the Conservative chair, referred to in his opening speech. He referred obliquely to families divided by the referendum debate. Two thirds of Tory members voted to leave the EU, but that means that one third supported Remain.
And one of those was the new Prime Minister herself. It was strange to hear her say that the UK is “going to be a fully independent and sovereign country once again”, when only a few weeks ago she was arguing that it should not be.
No wonder therefore that the enthusiasm of the Eurosceptics was so contained.
For a Prime Minister whose position makes no sense, however, May did brilliantly in a short, businesslike speech. She read it from a text, not from the autocue, and when it was over, she briefly acknowledged the applause before striding off the stage as if she had work to get on with.
She started by, in effect, admitting that she didn’t want to talk about Brexit at all. She had taken the job, she said, to stand up for “ordinary working-class people”, for “people who can just about manage”. It is a strong pitch, and a clever use of David Cameron and George Osborne as the upper-class foil, that ought to worry the Labour Party except that it has enough of its own self-made anxieties.
The people she claims to represent, who worry about paying the mortgage and getting their children into good schools, may have voted to leave the EU, but they don’t want the Tory party to be banging on about Europe, they want it just to get on with it.
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
However, the party conference could hardly not talk about it, so we had today’s clear-the-air session, which consisted of May repeating the lines she had given in her two Sunday newspaper interviews and on The Andrew Marr Show this morning.
The main points: she will trigger Article 50, the two-year process for leaving the EU “no later than the end of March”; and there will be a “Great Repeal Bill” next year, which will do the opposite of its name. Although it will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, by which UK law was made temporarily (for 46 years) subservient to EU law, it will also say that all EU law continues to apply in the UK until Parliament decides that it doesn’t.
That was a tricky bit of her speech, so she lapsed into Euro-jargon, talking about “converting the acquis into British law”. But for trained specialists in Euro-jargon, she said something else significant, namely that “we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”. Given that the ECJ is the court that enforces the rules of the EU single market, this was confirmation that she intends to take us out of the single market.
She said people ought to stop fussing about the difference between soft Brexit and hard Brexit. Hard Brexit it is, then. But she used the traditional rhetorical device of the third way to present herself as the reasonable choice between two extremes.
On one side, there were those who didn’t want to accept the referendum verdict, who argue that Parliament has to vote on Article 50 (they are “trying to subvert democracy”, she said). On the other side, there were those who didn’t want to follow the Article 50 procedure at all, but simply walk out of the EU and sort out the mess afterwards (“no sudden and unilateral withdrawal”, she said).
She didn’t have much to say. But she said it well and convincingly. She couldn’t say more, she said, because she didn’t want to show her negotiating hand. But she didn’t have to. Every time she said we were leaving the EU they applauded happily.
And she did at least perform one valuable service to political rhetoric by killing off that awful phrase “punching above our weight”, a phrase redolent of declinism and insecurity that always sounds like an admission of weakness. “We don’t need to punch above our weight because our weight is substantial enough already.”
We will see about that, but this was a bold expression of serious intent.Reuse content