There is much buzz in Westminster today surrounding Theresa May’s interview with Sophy Ridge. Many of the more Eurosceptic news outlets reported that the prime minister had ruled out Britain remaining in the single market; others got a different impression. Let’s go to the transcript of what Theresa May actually said:
“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. I’m ambitious for what we can get for the UK in terms of our relationship with the European Union because I also think that’s going to be good for the European Union. Our thinking on this isn’t muddled at all.”
To break this down, she tried to counter claims that her government had been “muddled” in its thinking about Brexit by saying something muddled. Certainly, the logic of everything May said in the Ridge interview leads one to believe that leaving the single market is all but inevitable. But she is still trotting out the “having one’s cake and eating it” approach. The literal meaning of the quote above is that she is holding to the line that the EU will allow the UK to remain in the single market while simultaneously allowing Britain to stop freedom of movement of people from EEA countries because “that’s going to be good for the European Union.”
Theresa May knows full well that if she goes into the post-Article 50 negotiations with a red line on immigration, the UK will end up outside of the single market. Therefore, I can only imagine the reason she doesn’t want to just come out and say “we’re definitely leaving the single market, unless by some miracle the EU throws in the towel on freedom of movement of people” is that she thinks this will either be publicly unpopular or will give Labour a way to vote against Article 50 being triggered should a vote in the Commons be necessary.
But why she would worry about any of that is bizarre. Labour very probably won’t vote anything down regardless and even they did, she could then just try and get a general election as soon as possible. She would be in a perfect place to blame Article 50 having not been triggered yet on the Labour Party. And when the early general election took place, she would win by anything from enormously to astronomically. The public meanwhile don’t care in large numbers about single market membership – they only care about the results.
So why does she keep peddling the muddled line when it obviously sounds muddled? Sophy Ridge chased her three times for clarity on this point – all May would say in the end is that she does not consider it a “binary issue”. Unfortunately, being a member of the EEA or not is about as binary as it gets.