Theresa May’s Brexit speech wins praise and harsh criticism

Sturgeon says Scottish referendum more likely now while Ukip claims credit for policies

Theresa May's promise to leave the European single market and customs union has won praise from Brexiteers but drew harsh criticism from opposition politicians. Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the prime minister had pandered to "hard right" Conservatives and made a second Scottish independence referendum more likely.

“The UK government cannot be allowed to take us out of the EU and the single market, regardless of the impact on our economy, jobs, living standards and our reputation as an open, tolerant country, without Scotland having the ability to choose between that and a different future. With her comments today, the prime minister has only succeeded in making that choice more likely,” she said.

The prime minister threatened to slash corporate tax rates and take retaliatory action if the EU sought to impose a “punitive” deal on Britain. She said she would prefer to allow Britain to leave the EU with no agreement on trade, immigration and other issues, rather than agree to unwelcome terms.

‘No deal better than bad deal’

"Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – 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," she said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Ms May of wanting to use Brexit to turn Britain into a "bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe". He said that, although the prime minister had used the spectre of a race to the bottom to threaten other European leaders, it was in fact a threat to British people's jobs and living standards.

Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer welcomed Ms May's suggestion that Brexit could be followed by an "implementation phase" during which some EU rules would continue to apply. He said the prime minister was effectively ruling out the "hard Brexit" some in her own party favoured.

Ukip leader Paul Nuttall also praised the speech, however, adding that it sounded like one of his own party's conference speeches.

“The prime minister is now applying some of the things that we’ve been talking about for many, many years, so I would give her seven out of 10 for this effort,” he said.

Sterling rallies

Business groups offered a cautious welcome to Ms May's call for an implementation phase after Brexit, and the pound rallied on currency markets after the speech. But Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that the prime minister had "changed the landscape" for business in Britain.

“Ruling out membership of the single market has reduced options for maintaining a barrier-free trading relationship between the UK and the EU. But businesses will welcome the greater clarity and the ambition to create a more prosperous, open and global Britain, with the freest possible trade between the UK and the EU. The pressure is now on to deliver these objectives and achieve a smooth and orderly exit,” she said.

In her speech, the prime minister sought to explain Britain’s decision to leave the EU in terms of its internationalist tradition and a political history that was not like others in Europe.

“Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.

"The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly and, as a result, supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life," she said.