Theresa May aims to set Brexit aside at Tory conference

PM offers assurances to party faithful at the start of the event in the hope that Europe will not dominate the rest of the week

Theresa May speaking at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham

Theresa May speaking at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.
Photograph: David Gadd/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Brexit may be the greatest constitutional and political challenge facing Britain in living memory; but Theresa May is determined that it must not dominate the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham this week.

Instead, she wants her ministers to get down to the business of creating what giant banners throughout the conference centre call “a Britain that works for all”.

That’s why the prime minister took the unusual step of addressing the party faithful at the start of the gathering, in addition to the traditional end-of-conference rallying cry on Wednesday, to reassure them she has no intention of backsliding on Brexit – and, she hopes, to set the issue aside for the next few days.

With that aim in mind, May told her party three things about how she hopes to ensure that “Brexit means Brexit, and we will make a success of it” – words that have become her catchphrase since the 23 June referendum, but which still raised enthusiastic applause from delegates.

First, she will trigger article 50, and the formal process of negotiating an exit, by the end of March. That sets a two-year clock ticking, within which time Britain must agree new trading arrangements with its EU partners, and most likely some transitional agreement that would apply until Brexit formally happens.

Secondly, she plans to pass a grandly titled “Great Repeal Act” in the new year. It will strike down the 1972 legislation that took the UK into the European community, as it was then, and enshrine the so-called acquis, the body of EU legislation, in UK law so that control of it will be returned to Westminster at the moment of Brexit.

That’s aimed at providing stability for businesses, by maintaining the status quo for the time being, while opening up the possibility that legislation originating with the EU could be unpicked over time.

This Great Repeal Act, which at the outset will do little more than replicate EU law in domestic legislation, is a pragmatic act of housekeeping: it would be simply impossible for Britain’s lawmakers to run the slide-rule over every piece of EU legislation pre-Brexit to decide what to keep and what to ditch.

Yet May is keen to satisfy what her Brexiteer colleagues saw as a key part of the appeal of the Vote Leave campaign: the urge to “take back control” from Brussels. So she painted the Great Repeal Act as returning Britain to being a “fully independent, sovereign country”.

But she was quick to pledge that she had no intention of unpicking EU law in one key area in which Brexiteers whinge about Brussels bureaucracy: workers’ rights. That promise undercuts one of the key warnings of remain campaigners in the run-up to the referendum, that hard-won freedoms including maternity rights and paid holidays could be up for grabs if Britain voted to leave.

Thirdly, May repeatedly said she would not give a running commentary on Brexit negotiations or set out Britain’s demands in advance. That was a mistake that her allies feel David Cameron made in his ill-fated EU renegotiations last winter.

But May does want to make clear that regaining control over migration is key. However, senior politicians across the EU have repeatedly made clear they believe unfettered freedom of movement to be an indivisible element of the single market, and most experts believe Britain will have to pay some price for “taking back control” of migration.

May herself refused to accept a trade-off between Britain’s economic relationship with the EU after Brexit and the ability to decide who comes to live and work here. Instead, she said, she hopes to negotiate “the kind of mature, cooperative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy”.

Anyone who has witnessed the hard-nosed tit-for-tat of global trade negotiations over recent years, or the uncompromising way in which the EU has handled the many rounds of brutal bailout talks with Greece, knows that appeals to friendship and maturity are unlikely to cut much ice in Brussels, or indeed at the World Trade Organisation’s HQ in Geneva.

May knows that very well, too, but she will hope that by flourishing her Great Repeal Act, and setting a hard deadline for Brexit, she has done enough to quieten the grumblings from her own backbenches – and allow her to switch attention this week to her real political project, to occupy the political centre ground.

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