Theresa May denied on Monday (9 January) that the UK was heading for a ‘hard Brexit’, in the wake of the resignation of the UK ambassador to the EU, and her own core focus on controlling immigration.
May – herself a ‘Remain’ campaigner in last year’s referendum – was forced on the defensive during her first major speech of the New Year, which was intended to be about funding for mental health.
Instead, she was asked about the repeated plunges of the pound sterling against the dollar since the Brexit decision – not least following her weekend TV interview, which again stressed the need to limit immigration at all costs.
Probed by The Sun newspaper that the pound had fallen after Sunday’s interview, and so ‘were the markets getting it wrong, or was the prime minister getting it wrong’, May replied: “Well, I’m tempted to say the people who are getting it wrong are those who print things saying I’m talking about a hard Brexit, [that] it’s absolutely inevitable it’s a hard Brexit.
“I don’t accept the terms hard or soft Brexit.
“What we are doing is going to get an ambitious, good, the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in terms of trading with, and operating within, the single European market. But it will be a new relationship because we won’t be members of the EU any longer. We will be outside the European Union, and therefore we will be negotiating a new relationship across not just trading but other areas with the European Union.”
The pound at one point on Monday reached a 10-week low against the dollar, down more than 1%, after she told Sky News on Sunday she was not interested in keeping “bits of membership of the EU” – a remark the markets took as being prepared to sacrifice membership of the single market to reimpose migration controls.
She also categorically rejected the remarks of her departing EU ambassador, Sir Ivan Rogers, that the government was suffering from “muddled thinking” on both what it wanted and what the other EU-27 might accept.
She said, “Our thinking isn’t muddled at all.
“Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU.
“We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer,” she told Sky. “We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws.”
Despite repeated warnings from other EU capitals that the free movement of people was one of the four inalienable rights of EU membership, along with the single market, May on Sunday said it was not a “binary choice”.
She added: “Anybody who looks at this question of free movement and trade as a sort of zero sum game is approaching it in the wrong way.”
At one point, sterling slid as much as 1.2 % to $1.2136, its lowest since late October, making it the worst performer among major currencies on Monday.
In her speech – ostensibly to remove the stigmas around mental health, and on social reform – May also warned about the ‘politics of division’.
“We know what happens when mainstream centre-ground politics fails – people embrace the fringe, the politics of division and despair,” the Conservative leader said.
“They turn to those who offer easy answers, who claim to understand people’s problems, and always know what and who to blame.”
However, May is the only EU leader so far to have confirmed a visit to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump after his inauguration on 20 January.
“We see those fringe voices gaining prominence in some countries across Europe today. Voices from the hard left and far right stepping forward and sensing that this is their time,” she added.
“But they stand on the shoulders of mainstream politicians who have allowed unfairness and division to grow by ignoring the legitimate concerns of ordinary people for too long.”