May Seeks Voters' Permission to Walk Away From Brexit Deal

  • Tory election document promises not to pay vast EU exit bill
  • Premier: Britain facing ‘most challenging’ five years ahead

May Pledges to Fight for `Ordinary, Working People'

Prime Minister Theresa May called on voters to give her the freedom to walk away from Brexit negotiations without a deal, as she reinforced her hard-line approach to Britain’s divorce from the European Union.

In publishing her Conservative Party’s manifesto on Thursday, May locked a future Tory government into backing her plans for a clean break with the EU and supporting her if talks fail.

“The negotiations will undoubtedly be tough, and there will be give and take on both sides, but we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the U.K.,” it said in the manifesto released in the northern town of Halifax.

Including the scenario of no deal in the manifesto binds Tory lawmakers elected on it into backing May if negotiations flop and also serves as a warning to EU counterparts not to try to punish the British for leaving the bloc. The downside is that it risks worrying businesses about the potential for sweeping tariffs and uncertainty if the U.K. tumbles out of its biggest market.

The document also reiterated May’s plans to remove Britain from the single market and customs union as well as to “reduce and control” EU migration. It rejected the bloc’s proposed negotiating schedule and pledged to stop “making vast annual contributions” to the EU budget.

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May set out her Brexit goals in black and white, a critically important move given that talks with the EU could begin as soon as the day after the June 8 election. Assuming opinion polls are correct and her Tories are re-elected, the document will form the blueprint that guides the government through Brexit in 2019 and out to 2022.

Speaking at the launch, May said that “every vote for me and my team is a vote that will strengthen my hand in those Brexit negotiations.”

By talking up the clash with the EU, she will also be hoping to dispel any complacency among her voters and to draw pro-Brexit Labour supporters and onetime U.K. Independence Party backers to her side.

The manifesto committed a Conservative government to reducing net migration to the "tens of thousands," maintaining as frictionless a border as possible between the two parts of Ireland and protecting British rule over Gibraltar.

On the controversial matter of the Brexit bill, May would “determine a fair settlement of the U.K.’s rights and obligations.” But in a sign of potential wiggle room, the document said she would do so "in the spirit of the U.K.’s continuing partnership with the EU.”

It also promised a "deep and special" trading relationship with the EU and accords with other countries based on the idea that there should be "as few barriers to trade and investment as possible."

Trade Envoys

Nine trade commissioners would be dotted around the globe and the government would aim to replicate all existing EU free-trade deals.

The Conservative Party also repeated that May wants to discuss the terms of divorce such as the bill in tandem with a future trade agreement in order to wrap up the talks by the March 2019 deadline. EU officials, by contrast, say they won’t debate commerce until differences over the bill, the Irish border and citizens’ rights are resolved.

“We want fair, orderly negotiations, minimizing disruption and giving as much certainty as possible -- so both sides benefit,” the manifesto said. “We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed.”

The focus on winning back sovereignty from the EU means the manifesto undermines speculation in some quarters that May will soften her ambitions for Brexit if returned to power.

By maintaining an uncompromising line, Tories are hoping to dispel any complacency among their voters. May’s party is as many as 20 points ahead of their nearest rival, Labour, in opinion polls. The risk, though, is that her counterparts in the other EU 27 members remember the rhetoric of the campaign trail and hold it against her.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, had a warning of her own for May. Britain, she said Wednesday, will be made to pay a price if it limits immigration from the region after 2019.

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