The 2016 Conservative Party Conference featured a series of speeches by key figures in the Brexit debate, including Prime Minister Theresa May, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. This blog highlights the key points from each of the main speakers.
Prime Minister May
In a departure from tradition, the Prime Minister addressed the conference on the opening day. Mrs May made a number of significant announcements on the Government’s approach to the exit process.
She began by stating that the referendum result was clear, legitimate and the biggest vote for change the UK has ever known: “Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it.”
Acknowledging the UK public’s desire for clarity on the timing of Britain’s departure from the EU Mrs May affirmed that there would be no “unnecessary delays” in invoking Article 50: “We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon. We will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year.”
The Prime Minister also reaffirmed her belief in the Government’s prerogative to invoke Article 50, dispelling claims that Parliament must be consulted in advance: “It is not up to the House of Commons to invoke Article 50. It is up to the Government to trigger Article 50 and the Government alone.” Mrs May declared that those who have argued for parliamentary approval of the decision to invoke Article 50 were “trying to kill [Brexit] by delaying it.” “They are insulting the intelligence of the British people,” she added.
The Prime Minister also stated that negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union would be the sole responsibility of the UK Government: while there would be consultation with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be the UK Government alone that would conduct the negotiations. Mrs May also appeared to dismiss suggestions that Brexit could result in a break-up of the UK, or that a ‘variable geometry’ solution to EU membership could be reached for the home countries: “Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom we will negotiate as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom […] and I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”
Regarding the domestic procedures, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, convert existing EU law into British law, and end the judicial oversight of the European Court of Justice: “Our laws will be made not in Brussels but in Westminster,” Mrs May said. She also asserted that existing workers’ legal rights would continue to be guaranteed in law, and would continue to be protected as long as she is Prime Minister.
In a key passage of her speech, Theresa May made clear that the choice between a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit was, in her view, a false dichotomy. Referring to the oft-cited trade-off between Single Market access and the free movement of people, the Prime Minister said that this was “the wrong way of looking at things”:
We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully-independent sovereign country. We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration […]But, let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again and we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
The Prime Minister concluded by calling for a united effort to generate a plan for Brexit, to make a success of it and to make a reality of ‘Global Britain’.
Brexit Secretary Davis
In his speech, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, promised to bring immigration numbers down and take control of the UK’s borders.
Mr Davis spoke of the relationship between the UK and the EU, arguing that it was necessary to “appreciate and respect what the European Union means to them” stating that it was “not surprising” that governments elsewhere in Europe see the European Union as a guarantor of the rule of law, democracy and freedom. However, according to Mr Davis, the UK has always viewed the EU differently, and this divergent interpretation has been one of the fundamental problems in EU-UK relations.
Turning to the issue of immigration, Secretary Davis acknowledged that the clear message from the referendum is that the UK must have the ability to control immigration: “Let us be clear, we will control our own borders and we will bring the numbers down.”
On the preparations for the coming negotiations, Mr Davis argued that there would be no “running commentary” on the negotiations. He informed delegates that he was looking at all the options and that the UK would be prepared for any outcome. However, the Brexit Secretary underlined the negative consequences of erecting barriers to trade in either direction, emphasising the desire to maintain the “freest possible trade between us, without betraying the instructions we have received from the British people to take back control of our own affairs.”
He reiterated the Prime Minister’s remarks on workers’ rights, saying that “we give this guarantee: this Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.”
Foreign Secretary Johnson
In a singular speech, which began by quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and proceeded to draw a tenuous connection between the name of the European Council President, Donald Tusk, and the EU’s recent opposition to a global ivory ban, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, claimed that the referendum of 23 June was a vote in favour of economic and political freedom.
Johnson underlined his belief in the restrictive nature of EU membership, and commented that his initial contact with EU bureaucracy in his role as Foreign Secretary has convinced him that the UK would not be in any way disadvantaged by extricating itself from the EU treaties: “Indeed there are some ways in which we will be liberated to be more active on the world stage than ever before – because we are not leaving Europe.”
Boris Johnson affirmed that the UK would remain committed to many kinds of European cooperation, but that they would do so at an intergovernmental level. In particular he made reference to maintaining sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine and contributing assistance with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Though many questions remain to be answered, the Conservative Party Conference, and Mrs May’s speech in particular, provides a welcome glimmer of clarity in the Brexit debate – arguably the first since the British electorate voted to leave the EU on 23 June. Her comments on the need to control immigration, when set against the statements of EU leaders regarding the inflexibility of the principle of free movement of people, have been widely interpreted as an indication that Britain’s course may veer towards a ‘hard’ Brexit. However, it must be noted that in her remarks Mrs May explicitly recognised the need for compromise on both sides. A sui generis solution for the UK may yet be the outcome.