‘Brexit means Brexit’ is one of the most brilliant political soundbites of recent times. It worked wonders for Theresa May during the Tory leadership contest. It showed that she didn’t intend to ignore the referendum result — that would have been politically suicidal — but the phrase is essentially meaningless. Brexit could mean many things.
The question of what it actually is will define British politics for the next five years at least; it will be no surprise if we are still arguing about it in a decade’s time. At its most basic, Brexit means leaving the European Union. But the real debate is going to be about how the United Kingdom does that and what its relationship with the EU will be afterwards.
May has, understandably, kept her options open. Her government doesn’t yet know for sure what it actually needs from the exit talks. When David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, spoke to the first meeting of May’s cabinet he emphasised two points. First, that Brexit had to be coordinated alongside the negotiation of trade deals with other countries. Secondly, that he’d like Secretaries of State to write to him setting out what their departments both wanted and feared from Brexit. It is worth noting, though, that many other countries will want to know what arrangement the UK has with the EU before deciding on what kind of trade deal to agree.
One clue as to what May is thinking is that she consistently talks about placing ‘controls’ on free movement, rather than ending it. Some have taken this as a sign that she is interested in a European Economic Area deal where free movement is accepted for work. The word on Whitehall is that one of the models Davis’s team is looking at is one in which the UK stays in the single market but with some more controls on freedom of movement.