May Expresses Doubts About Brexit Campaign’s Key Promises

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Theresa May speaks during a press conference in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 4.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
  • Rejects ‘points-based’ immigration system, money for NHS
  • Prime minister warns of ‘difficult times’ ahead for economy

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May expressed doubts about key promises made by those members of her Cabinet who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, including a points-based immigration system and leaving the single market.

Speaking to journalists as she traveled to China for the Group of 20 summit, May was dismissive of the immigration proposals made by Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, in the run-up to the June 23 Brexit referendum. He had called for a Australia-style “points-based” system, allowing people to move to the U.K. if they have sufficient qualifications or skills in demand.

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“You really don’t want to ask a former home secretary about the intricacies of a points-based system because it might take a very long time to answer your question,” May said. “One of the issues is whether or not points-based systems do work.”

Johnson was the front man for a campaign that also promised to increase spending on the state-funded National Health Service by 18 billion pounds ($24 billion) a year, cut taxes on energy bills and take Britain out of the EU’s single market.

May, who campaigned on the other side in the referendum, refused to endorse any of those commitments this weekend. Her office said today mimicking Australia “will not work and is not an option.”

Her only stated negotiating position is to introduce “controls” on how many EU citizens can settle in Britain. That statement, reiterated on Sunday, has been taken to mean that she no longer expects the U.K. to stay in the single market as EU leaders say full access is not possible without full freedom of movement. May took issue with that interpretation.

“I’m going out there to get the best possible deal,” she told reporters. “What we will be looking for is the deal that’s right for the United Kingdom, which is why I say don’t look at a model and say –- well if you do this you can’t do that. We’re going to go out, be ambitious and we’re going to achieve for the U.K.”

A points-based system was also supported by Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Brexit Secretary David Davis, International Development Secretary Priti Patel and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. 

Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, said in a statement that May’s comments were “appalling” and indicated “serious backsliding” given the electorate supported a points-based system.

‘Difficult Times’

“It’s now clear that very few of their pledges were worth the paper they were written on,” said opposition Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna, chairman of the pro-EU Vote Leave Watch campaign. “After barely campaigning for Remain, our unelected prime minister now contemptuously dismisses policies like increasing spending on the NHS which people voted on in good faith and great numbers.”

Brexit Secretary Davis will deliver a statement in the House of Commons on Monday for the first time since taking office and call Brexit an “historic and exciting” opportunity.

Still, May warned there were “difficult times ahead” for the U.K. economy in the wake of the decision to quit the EU. “I won’t pretend it’s all going to be plain sailing,” she said. Recent data had sent “different messages” about how the economy was responding, but businesses she had spoken to had told her “let’s get on with it, let’s make a success of it.” She said she saw a role for Britain as a global champion of free trade that delivers benefits for everyone.

Obama Warning

May got an early taste of the difficulties to come after her first one-on-one G-20 meeting, with Barack Obama. The U.S. president told reporters he stood by his warning earlier this year that a trade deal with the U.K. wasn’t high on his government’s list of priorities.

“I never suggested that we will, quote unquote, punish Britain,” he said in response to a question from a U.K. journalist. “I was asked about the viability of negotiating a separate trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K.” He said the U.S. was focused on its trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade deals and “it would not make sense for us to put those efforts aside.”

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has published a 15-page document setting out the concerns businesses in that country have about Brexit, warning that the head offices of Japanese firms in the U.K. could be shifted to the continent if EU regulations no longer applied.

“In light of the fact that a number of Japanese businesses, invited by the government in some cases, have invested actively to the U.K., which was seen to be a gateway to Europe, and have established value-chains across Europe, we strongly request that the U.K. will consider this fact seriously and respond in a responsible manner to minimize any harmful effects on these businesses,” it said.

Parliament Debate

May has dismissed the idea of a second referendum, a demand that has gathered more than 4 million online signatures in a petition to be debated in Parliament on Monday. In a BBC Television interview recorded before she left for the summit, the prime minister confirmed that the formal process for exiting the EU will not be triggered this year, but pledged it would not be “kicked into the long grass.” Britain, she said, would be a “bold, outward-looking country” forging its way in the world.

In China, May also held one-to-one talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and met with Narendra Modi from India on Monday. She also met Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, who said his government is keen to clinch a trade accord with the U.K as soon as it leaves the European Union. 

Hinkley Point

But her toughest conversation is likely to be with Chinese President Xi Jinping. She said she’s still making up her mind about whether to let the Chinese-backed Hinkley Point nuclear power station proceed.

The plant would be built in Britain by Electricite de France SA and one-third funded by China General Nuclear Power Corp. Some in her team have expressed security concerns. Asked if she trusted the Chinese, May replied, “of course we have a relationship with them and we have seen significant Chinese investment. What I want to do is build on that relationship.”

She said her intended silence on the subject in China should not be taken as a sign she was against the project.

“This is the way that I operate,” she said. “I don’t just come in and say I’m going to take the decision, I actually look at the evidence, weigh up the evidence, take the advice, consider that and then come to my decision. That’s exactly the process I’m going through. I’ve said a decision will be taken in September and it will. It’s not to be taken now, it will be taken later.”

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