Brexit speech: What it means for publishing

Blog (2017)

Theresa May’s Brexit speech: What it means for publishing

By Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association

Over the past six months we have all become familiar with the Prime Minister’s mantra that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. While this phrase has been derided in some quarters, it has served its purpose, which was to sensibly buy the government time to work out what on earth Brexit actually meant and how to go about implementing it. The PM faces an almost impossible task of course. Not only as a ‘Remain’ supporter does she have to take ownership of what leaving the EU means – she also somehow has to try and find a way of unifying the disparate views of ‘Leave’ supporters as to what type of country Britain will be in the future.

Today, Theresa May made her first attempt at setting out what the UK’s approach to negotiating our departure from the EU will be and her vision of the nation’s future. Much of the speech had been briefed ahead of time, in an effort one can only assume was to try to avoid a run on sterling, which had overshadowed previous interventions. Those expecting a blow-by-blow account of how the negotiations will proceed will have been disappointed, but what we did see was the PM taking ownership of the Referendum narrative, seeking to explain why it had happened and what it meant for the future.

Standing in front of a backdrop emblazoned with the, it has to be said rather small, slogan ‘A Global Britain’ the PM sought to reassure the British public, businesses and our European neighbours, that the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to turn in on ourselves, but a vote for internationalism. It was not, she said, a rejection of shared values, a desire to become more distant or to do harm to the EU. It was instead a desire to build a truly global Britain. Walking a rhetorical tightrope the PM told us, from the same venue which saw Margaret Thatcher announce our membership of the Single Market that she had no desire to turn the clock back, albeit through a speech littered with references to Britain’s golden past as a great trading nation.

What Theresa May was clear about was what we wanted from the EU. We want to be partners, allies and friends with our European neighbours. This was defined as the greatest possible access to markets, being welcome in each other’s nations and collaboration on intelligence and defence. The PM was adamant that the UK will be seeking a new and equal partnership, not partial or associate membership as currently enjoyed by other nations. She went on to set out 12 objectives for leaving the EU. The six which were new and of most relevance to publishing were as follows:

  1. Certainty – the PM wanted to make clear that where possible certainty would be provided for business as to what the future holds. This means that the same rules and laws will apply the day after Brexit as they did before and only Parliament will decide what changes. She also revealed that the final deal on the agreement on leaving the EU will be put to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.
  2. Control on immigration – the government will aspire to continue to attract the brightest and the best to the country but there will be controls on EU citizens moving to the UK. She said that she wanted to guarantee the rights of those here and Brits abroad and a deal on this could be struck now but not all EU leaders were in agreement.
  3. Free trade with European markets – the UK would pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU. The PM wants the maximum freedom for UK and EU business but was clear that this would not be within the confounds of membership of the Single Market.
  4. New trade agreements with other countries – for the first time Theresa May admitted that her desire for the UK to be free to negotiate new trade arrangements with the rest of the world was incompatible with remaining part of the Customs Union. She said the UK will seek some form of new customs agreement.
  5. Science and innovation – the PM stated that part of her vision for ‘Global Britain’ was being one of the best places in the world for science and innovation. In practical terms this will mean an agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.
  6. Transition – there will be a phased approach to implementation through a ‘long-lasting transitional deal’ with EU to avoid a “disruptive cliff edge” for businesses.

There was much in the PM’s speech to reassure both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters. The challenge now of course will be delivering on such aspirations through some difficult negotiations with our European neighbours. The last Prime Minister who told us confidently that a new deal with Europe could be struck was David Cameron. I think everyone can agree that he found it much harder than he had imagined.