Theresa May’s Brexit speech: initial analysis

The Prime Minister this week outlined her 12-point plan for Brexit, which included no place for the UK in the single market, a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the final deal and a promise to “get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU”.

The hour-long speech was (unsurprisingly) heavy on rhetoric and light on detail, but there was a collective sigh of relief that Theresa May had finally expanded on her “Brexit means Brexit” statement from six months ago. “Sad process, surrealistic times, but at least more realistic announcement on Brexit,” tweeted Donald Tusk, president of the European council.

In the coming days and weeks – before Article 50 is triggered at the end of March – each and every one of the prime minister’s 6,406 words will be read and analysed in detail, commentators seeking every possible interpretation. The initial reactions from the food and hospitality sector were mixed, with access to trade and labour still major concerns.

The hospitality sector employs well over 700,000 EU workers and the British Hospitality Association has already called for a 10-year timescale to provide employers and British society “more time to adapt”. “Without EU workers our industry will be unable to welcome visitors from home and abroad and keep the UK going,” said chief executive Ufi Ibrahim.

Forecasts published by NPD for the foodservice sector this week were more positive, however – at least in the short term. “We have done ‘soft Brexit’ and ‘hard Brexit’ forecasts for 2017 and 2018,” explained NPD foodservice director Cyril Lavenant. “The good news is that there’s a relatively narrow difference between  ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ visit estimates for the next two years, even though Brexit clearly began to slow the pace of growth in 2016.”

For 2017, the difference in visits is +0.4% (‘soft’) versus -0.2% (‘hard’) and there’s a similar story for 2018 with a variation of +1.6% versus +1.3%, according to NPD’s forecasts. “So with many parts of the British foodservice market showing clear signs of strength and resilience, we don’t anticipate a sharp drop, either in a ‘soft Brexit’ or ‘hard Brexit’ environment,” Lavenant added.

May recognised the dangers of throwing businesses off a “cliff-edge” as the UK’s relationship with the EU ended. Still, she is opposed to an “unlimited transitional status, in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory”.

Indeed, the UK has to “get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe”, she said, listing the countries that have “expressed an interest” in striking trade deals – China, Brazil and the Gulf States – and highlighting the recent warm hand of friendship offered by US president elect Donald Trump (who suggested this week that he’d seek a US-UK trade agreement “very quickly” after Brexit).

 What will come of these global trade deals is hard to say. What is clear is that the UK will (eventually) be cut off from the single market – and its 500 million consumers. “…as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union,” said May. “This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU's member states.”

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