When Theresa May entered Number 10 on 13 July, her task seemed impossible. She had to win the trust of Leavers without alienating Remainers. She had to keep her warring party together. She had to produce a coherent, workable plan to take the UK out of the EU. She had to ensure Whitehall was ready to deliver what David Davis has described as the civil service’s most complex task since the Second World War.
At first, she kept her options open while making clear she respected the referendum result. At conference, she laid out some key points of principle. And at last, on Tuesday, the prime minister explicitly said what many had now guessed – the UK would leave the single market, it would prioritise the ability to strike trade deals around the world over customs union membership, and it would seek a new free trade agreement with the EU.
May’s decision to proceed incrementally has been vindicated. She bought herself time – to build consensus in her Cabinet, to let business get used to the idea single market membership might end, and to put in place the Whitehall infrastructure Brexit will require. As others argued over single market membership vs immigration control, she stayed above the fray. By the time she announced her intentions, the trade-offs were better understood and the UK’s departure from the single market seemed almost inevitable.
Where three months ago the CBI might have decried the end of single market membership, this week they welcomed the prime minister’s clarity. Potential Conservative rebels expressed disappointment, but gave no indication they would seek to frustrate the triggering of Article 50. Labour is still struggling to respond, leaving only the Lib Dems and SNP in outright opposition. Polls show 2 to 1 public support. And of course, the plan won universal acclaim from Leave-supporting MPs and newspapers.
A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister was labelled ‘Theresa Maybe’. Not anymore.
Measurement and evaluation