May’s Brexit bombshell: what to look out for

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Can Theresa May finally end her government’s bloody battles over Europe? Today the prime minister makes a landmark speech in Florence, outlining some important details of her Brexit plan.

Florence. It is a beautiful and historic city at the heart of Europe: the “cradle of capitalism”, the birthplace of the Renaissance — and home to Machiavelli, a mastermind of clever, unscrupulous politics.

It is here that Theresa May, the prime minister, has chosen to make one of the most important speeches of her career so far. Today, under the soaring arches of the Santa Maria Novella, she will finally outline a concrete plan for how Britain hopes to leave the European Union.

It is now over a year since 52% of British voters chose to leave the EU, and six months since May triggered Article 50 to start the negotiation process. But despite three rounds of talks with EU officials, the UK’s position on Brexit — what it really wants from the outcome — is unclear.

There is much to be decided. How much to spend on the “divorce bill” with the EU, to close off any remaining debts? Should there be a “transition period” after the initial two-year negotiating timeframe is up? If so, how long?

Few in the government think Britain should stay in the single market, as this means accepting free movement of people. But how similar should the new arrangement be? And what to do about the European Court of Justice?

All are vital decisions that will shape Britain’s future for decades. They affect everything from the price of food to airport border checks.

For the last week her top ministers have been locked in a furious public battle about these issues.

On one side is Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who wants a “clean break” which allows the UK full control of its own laws and finances.

On the other is Phil Hammond, the chancellor, who wants to protect Britain’s economy — which to him means staying close to the single market, and accepting some EU laws.

Yesterday the cabinet spent over two hours discussing the Florence speech in Downing Street. They left united, announcing that May would make an “open and generous offer” to the EU. Will this settle the argument once and for all?

As EU wish

“Yes,” say some, “and not a moment too soon.” The EU is losing patience; May must make the UK’s position crystal clear to allow negotiators to move forward. Today she will outline a series of compromises which appease both sides of the debate, and they can finally stop squabbling and get on with the job.

“Not likely,” say others, “the factions are too far apart.” Once decisions on Brexit are made, those who did not get what they want can resign in protest and start agitating for a different course (and May’s job). As James Forsyth put it in The Spectator yesterday, the Conservatives have been at civil war over Europe for 50 years; “This battle now threatens to be the bloodiest.”

You Decide

  1. Look at the grid at the top of this story. Which of the three types of Brexit would you prefer?
  2. Can a compromise from Theresa May settle the UK’s divisions over Europe?


  1. Listen to Theresa May’s speech at 12:15pm, or read the full text when it is available. Then decode her words using the grid above. Which column has she stuck to most?
  2. Write your own speech explaining how you would approach Brexit if you were prime minister today.

Some People Say...

“To be alone against enemies in 1940 was heroic. To be alone among friends in 2017 would be absurd.”

Italian writer Beppe Severgnini, on Britain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Theresa May’s speech will take place in the Catholic church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence at 12:15pm today. It will be attended by Phillip Hammond and Boris Johnson, two high-profile cabinet ministers who disagree fiercely about Brexit. There have been some hints that the speech will include a proposal for a two-year transitional period and an £18 billion divorce bill.
What do we not know?
What May will actually say — until she says it. She has been tight-lipped about the speech, and her staff have denied most of the rumours. Nor do we know how the EU will respond to her proposals; after all, she is only laying out Britain’s negotiating position, not a final deal. Whatever she says today, there is a strong chance that the EU has other ideas, especially about money.

Word Watch

A period of artistic and scientific renewal in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian writer and politician, notorious for the idea that “the ends justify the means”.
Article 50
A clause in the EU’s Lisbon treaty which allows members to leave the union. Once a country has triggered Article 50, as the UK did in March, it has two years to negotiate the terms of its exit.
Transition period
Many have called for an “adjustment phase” between Britain officially leaving the EU, and the final outcome.
Single market
A trading bloc of European countries, not all of whom are in the EU. It allows its members to trade without any restrictions. It also means that its members’ citizens are free to live and work in any other member state.
European Court of Justice
The ECJ is the highest court in the EU. Its job is to interpret EU law, and it has the final word over the courts of national governments. Many Brexiteers argue that Brexit will not be complete until British courts have regained full control over British laws, free of the ECJ.

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