Theresa May’s Brexit speech: What she said – and what she really meant

John Rentoul

What Theresa May said: I became prime minister almost three years ago – immediately after the British people voted to leave the European Union.

What she really meant: It feels much longer ago – and that’s the problem. All those MPs who promised to respect the result of the referendum have had too long to think about it.

What she said: I knew that delivering Brexit was not going to be simple or straightforward.

What she meant: But I thought the problem would be negotiating with 27 other countries, not having to deal with a self-radicalised tendency of my own party.

What she said: I have tried everything I possibly can to find a way through. It is true that initially I wanted to achieve this predominantly on the back of Conservative and DUP votes.


What she meant: Well, initially I thought I could do it with Conservative votes, and when I saw the chance of winning a huge majority, I grabbed it. You know how that worked out.

What she said: I sought the changes MPs demanded. I offered to give up the job I love earlier than I would like.

What she meant: I tried to turn my own unpopularity to my advantage. Vote for my deal and get Boris for PM, I said. That didn’t work either.

What she said: We engaged in six weeks of serious talks with the opposition, offering to compromise. But in the end those talks were not enough for Labour to reach an agreement with us. But I do not think that means we should give up.

What she meant: That would actually be the logical thing to do, but I haven’t beaten Gordon Brown’s length of time in office yet. That’s next Wednesday.

What she said: Today I am making a serious offer to MPs across parliament. A new Brexit deal.

What she meant: Same as the old one, but with a slightly more convincing sales pitch. I’m doing blunt truths and heartfelt emotion this time.

What she said: As part of the new Brexit deal we will place the government under a legal obligation to seek to conclude alternative arrangements by December 2020 so that we can avoid any need for the backstop coming into force.

What she meant: Don’t like the backstop? How about a “legal obligation” to try really, really hard not to have one?

What she said: We will prohibit the proposal that a future government could split Northern Ireland off from the UK’s customs territory.

What she meant: Don’t like a regulatory border in the Irish Sea? How about a law “prohibiting” a future parliament from having one?

What she said: The Northern Ireland assembly and executive will have to give their consent on a cross-community basis for new regulations which are added to the backstop. And we will work with our confidence and supply partners on how these commitments should be entrenched in law.

What she meant: You can’t entrench laws in this country because no parliament can bind its successor but I’ve got to say something. Plus, if the DUP want to avoid a Corbyn government they’re not going the right way about it.

What she said: To those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal: you need a deal and therefore a withdrawal agreement bill to make it happen.

What she meant: But no MP advocating a second referendum wants it to confirm the deal; they want it to stop Brexit. For them, it would be much easier just to vote against the bill, so I don’t know why I am wasting my time.

What she said: Our New Brexit Deal makes a 10-point offer to everyone in parliament who wants to deliver the result of the referendum.

What she meant: That’s seven points too many for any normal person to take in, but it makes it sound like a substantial proposal instead of a cosmetic exercise.

What she said: All of these commitments will be guaranteed in law – so they will endure at least for this parliament.

What she meant: At least three years! You can get a guarantee on a dishwasher longer than that!

What she said: If MPs vote against the second reading of this bill – they are voting to stop Brexit. If they do so, the consequences could hardly be greater. Reject this deal and leaving the EU with a negotiated deal any time soon will be dead in the water.

What she meant: Along with my place in history and the Conservative Party’s future. Do you Tory MPs who intend to vote against the deal really want to spend decades in the wilderness trying to organise a pact with Nigel Farage?

What she said: Some suggest leaving without a deal. But whatever you think of that outcome – parliament has been clear it will do all it can to stop it. If not no deal, then it would have to be a general election or a second referendum that could lead to revocation – and no Brexit at all. Who believes that a general election at this moment – when we have still not yet delivered on what people instructed us to do – is in the national interest?

What she meant: And when I say the national interest, I mean your interest as MPs with Nigel Farage breathing down your necks.

What she said: Look at what this debate is doing to our politics. Extending it for months more – perhaps indefinitely – risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarised politics.

What she meant: Don’t think you Labour MPs are going to escape the fallout from this either. Farage has got a direct line to your working-class voters, you know.

What she said: This is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom. Out of the EU, out of ever closer union, free to do things differently … It is practical. It is responsible. It is deliverable. And right now, it is slipping away from us.

What she meant: I might as well tell it like it is. This is the end for me. If you MPs, Labour and Tory, want to make it the end for you too, that’s your business. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.