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Theresa May's Big Brexit Speech Was a Big Anti-Climax

She went all the way to Florence for a blockbuster speech that was totally pedestrian.
Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit speech in Florence (Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire/PA Images)

Minutes before Theresa May's 30 minutes-delayed big speech, and Florence was on tenterhooks. Would the PM be choppered straight back to London to attend to the exploding crisis in middle class London twentysomethings throwing their toys out of the cot on Twitter? Would she address "anyone with less than a 4.3 Uber rating" directly? Would she call in the troops to make banal conversation when driving people back from a Pitcher & Piano in Fulham? Or would she merely slog on with her prepared text, about this Europe thingy?


Either way, Sadiq had turned Theresa's landmark speech into a sideshow. And a good thing for her too – it was merely OK, not nearly the blockbuster we'd been hyped up for.

There's something mildly tragic about going to a different country just to deliver a speech. You won't catch Jean-Claude Juncker renting a Novotel meeting room in Salisbury to deliver his next withering broadside against David Davis.

But in a way, that's exactly what the PM did. She had no outsanding business in Italy. No Italian government figures were in attendance – merely a few "dignitaries" who'd been co-opted to a hall, rented by HM Govt, plus the world's press, also a bit mystified as to why exactly they'd tumbled off the EasyJet redeye.

For at least the first eight minutes, it was impossible for anyone to understand had turned up: lazy copy-pasted platitudes about the Rennaissance, city-state trading empires, "our European allies". Can we never just take all of this as read?

Eventually, though, a few genuine points managed to slip through the waffle net.

The PM, it turned out, was punting for a two-year transition period after March 2019. What happens at the end of a transition period? Do you have to transition again? No. Because this would be "double-locked". A fine-sounding phrase that means not very much. As the EU27 have maintained, to transition, you first need to know what you're aiming for – you can't negotiate a transition until someone has laid out where the end-goal is. A transition to affiliate Single Market membership is very different to a transition to WTO rules. They want this to be Phase 3. After the divorce talks, and after the trade treaty talks, then they'll talk about getting between the two. This simply doesn't change their position.


There was talk of a "treaty" between the two partners over defence, crime and security. Which seems to be Britain trying to separate-out a non-contentious issue in order to at least tick one thing off of their Herculean "to do" list. They want our intel. We want theirs. We both want to deport criminals. There's no issue there, so why not whip it off the table quickly?

There was number on how much we'd be prepared to pay for our divorce – £18 billlion. Far less than the £50 billion the EU would like (or the £100 billion some have suggested). But an obvious paving of the way to settle near the £30 billion mark. It's only money, folks.

On foreign citizens, there were more creamy platitudes disguising a small sting – an inference that the transitional zone would give the UK a chance to "register" EU nationals.

Curiously, very little seemed to be responding to Boris Johnson's maneouvres of last weekend. What Popbitch memorably called his "general studies homework": 4,000 words in the Telegraph in which he waxed bumptiously on about driverless cars and gave it some inspirational welly about trading opportunities beyond the Eurozone, didn't seem to feature or be explicitly smacked-down.

All of which somehow weakens both of their positions. Boris went freelance, undermined her authority. She was told by many to sack him. They had some kind of a pow-wow. And then he didn't resign. So we're left simultaneously wondering both why didn't he resign for not getting his way, and why didn't she sack him if she wasn't about to give ground.


If anything, Florence found her wriggling mildly closer to frenemy Phil Hammond, who'd been the first Cabinet big gun to argue openly for transitional arrangements.

But really – we're still on the track lines of getting exactly the kind of Brexit we were lead to expect: we will pay some annual monies to the EU in order to keep in with projects we support (defence, terrorism, penions liabilities, occasional development goals). We will transition to a position beyond the Common Market and Customs Union (which is the only way to be "outside the EU" in any meaningful sense), and we will safeguard the rights of immigrant Europeans, while preparing to head to a regime that treats all the world's foreign citizens the same.

Overall, this was a speech maybe best remembered for what it didn't say. Remain voices have been far more bolshy since the election, but the "Norway Model" didn't get a look in. The markets didn't seem to be too plussed either. The pound drifted lower by half a cent against the dollar.

For all the airfares, Florence was not Thatcher-in-Bruges territory. A constructive but workaday document that paints in a few of the more obvious brush-strokes on the canvas. Whether it can kickstart stalled talks seems like a much bigger ask. Get your paint-drying specs on, we're in for an autumn of not very much.