Theresa May's Mansion House speech: what she said – and what she really meant

Our chief political commentator tries to imagine what was going through the Prime Minister’s mind as she set out her plans for the next phase of the Brexit talks

John Rentoul
Friday 02 March 2018 17:22
‘I am not daft, Angela and Emmanuel. I know we have to pay a price for leaving the EU, but help me sell it to my people’
‘I am not daft, Angela and Emmanuel. I know we have to pay a price for leaving the EU, but help me sell it to my people’

What she said: There have been many different voices and views in the debate on what our new relationship with the EU should look like. I have listened carefully to them all.

What she really meant: My Government is completely divided. Neither side thinks I’m listening to them. They are quite right. I’ll decide what I can get away with at the last moment.

What she said: These are the five tests for the deal that we negotiate.

What she meant: I’m nothing like Gordon Brown – paranoid, indecisive and obsessed with detail – but he did have this brilliant device for dealing with difficult problems: invent five tests.

What she said: First, the agreement we reach with the EU must respect the referendum.

What she meant: The first test is: will this speech keep me in my job for another week?

What she said: Second, the new agreement we reach with the EU must endure.

What she meant: The second test is: will it keep me in my job for months and months?

What she said: Third, it must protect people’s jobs and security.

What she meant: Third, the speech must be vague enough for me to deny that it means what anyone who doesn’t like it says it means.

What she said: Fourth, it must be consistent with the kind of country we want to be as we leave: a modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy.

What she meant: The fourth test is keeping Boris Johnson on board. Liberal Brexit, liberal with the platitudes.

What she said: And fifth, in doing all of these things, it must strengthen our union of nations and our union of people.

What she meant: If I can hold enough of the Conservative Party together in this divisive period, I might hang on to my job for longer still.

What she said: We are now approaching a crucial moment.

What she meant: Pay attention because there will be a test later. If you don’t like what I’m about to negotiate, Boris, Michael, David, Liam, Chris, Penny and Natalie, you won’t be able to complain about it.

What she said: It is not good enough to say, ‘We won’t introduce a hard border; if the EU forces Ireland to do it, that’s down to them’. We chose to leave; we have a responsibility to help find a solution.

What she meant: Consider yourselves ticked off, silly-billy faction of Brexiteers.

What she said: I want to be straight with people – because the reality is that we all need to face up to some hard facts.

Theresa May: As Prime Minister of the whole of the United Kingdom, I won't let Brexit affect Northern Ireland progress

What she meant: The last thing I want to do is be straight with people at this stage. I’ll need to disappoint them later so why rush?

What she said: How could the EU’s structure of rights and obligations be sustained, if the UK – or any country – were allowed to enjoy all the benefits without all of the obligations?

What she meant: I am not daft, Angela and Emmanuel. I know we have to pay a price for leaving the EU, but help me sell it to my people.

What she said: If we want good access to each other’s markets … we may choose to commit some areas of our regulations like state aid and competition to remaining in step with the EU’s.

What she meant: Get that, Jeremy Corbyn? Remember why you want to leave the EU: to subsidise and nationalise companies that wouldn’t be allowed under EU law. Don’t let Keir Starmer talk you into a super-soft Brexit: I need to keep Labour divided.

What she said: The fact is that every Free Trade Agreement has varying market access depending on the respective interests of the countries involved. If this is cherry-picking, then every trade arrangement is cherry-picking.

What she meant: Stick those cherries in your pie, Monsieur Barnier.

What she said: If the parliament of the day decided not to achieve the same outcomes as EU law, it would be in the knowledge that there may be consequences for our market access.

What she meant: I am not naive. I realise that Britain would be in a similar position to Switzerland, which is forced to keep EU deals it doesn’t like for fear of losing access to markets. So, good EU colleagues, don’t worry that we’ll diverge greatly in future.

What she said: We will also want to explore with the EU the terms on which the UK could remain part of EU agencies … We would, of course, accept that this would mean abiding by the rules of those agencies and making an appropriate financial contribution.

What she meant: You are about to lose our €10bn a year net contribution to EU funds, Mr Juncker.

What she said: Recognising the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, and our shared commitments to avoiding a hard border, we should consider further specific measures.

What she meant: I’m going into boring detail so you won’t notice I’m not saying anything new. Our plan for the border is to ignore small businesses and say “technology”.

What she said: The UK has responsibility for the financial stability of the world’s most significant financial centre.

What she meant: That’s the City of London. Where I am. In London. After next March it won’t be in the EU.

What she said: With UK located banks underwriting around half of the debt and equity issued by EU companies … this is a clear example of where only looking at precedent would hurt both the UK and EU economies.

What she meant: Who is going to underwrite your single market if you continentals try to kill off the City of London?

What she said: Yes, there will be ups and downs in the months ahead. As in any negotiation, no one will get everything they want.

What she meant: I am prepared to do a deal, my EU friends, but you will have to give some ground or you’ll end up talking to Boris “Bad Cop” Johnson. So play nice.

What she said: So my message to our friends in Europe is clear. We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. So let’s get on with it.

What she meant: My message is: we have no idea what you will let us have; we are baffled by your ridiculous attachment to the theology of the European ideal; but our peoples just want us to “get on with it” – it’s what they say in all my focus groups – so let’s not irritate them any further.

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