Theresa May was at pains in her Brexit speech and in the question-and-answer session from journalists afterwards to appear as friendly as possible to European leaders. She pointedly took questions from members of the European press who were present. She told the room that ‘we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe’, and addressed ‘our friends across Europe directly’, promising that Britain would continue to be ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends’.
But she also took a very strong negotiating line, threatening what David Cameron either couldn’t or wouldn’t, which was to walk away if the deal offered wasn’t good enough, particularly if EU leaders sought to punish Britain for its decision. She said:
‘While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain. Because we would still be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world. And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. And – if we were excluded from accessing the Single Market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.’
Listen to Isabel Hardman, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth reviewing Theresa May's speech:
One of the flaws of David Cameron’s renegotiation which he hoped would keep Britain in the European Union was that it was very clear that he didn’t just hope to keep Britain in the EU: he wouldn’t contemplate campaigning to leave. So there was no incentive for European leaders to give him very much at all. May is not taking the same approach - though of course she may have done had she been in charge of a pre-referendum renegotiation, given she too campaigned for Britain to stay in, albeit considerably less enthusiastically.
Her call for a boutique arrangement for Britain in terms of the customs union - saying she did not want Britain to be part of the Common Commercial Policy or to be bound by the Common External Tariff while having a ‘completely new customs agreement’ - will irritate some European leaders who will feel as though Britain wants to have its cake and eat it. But her speech will go down well internally, with the Prime Minister setting the upbeat tone about the opportunities afforded by Brexit and about Britain remaining an outward-looking country that her MPs had demanded.