One Year on from Lancaster House: An Assessment of Theresa May’s 12 Priorities


It is a year to the day since Theresa May spelled out her 12 priorities for Brexit at Lancaster House. The speech can be found here. Open Britain have assessed how these ambitions compare with the reality of what has occurred in the Brexit negotiations over the past 12 months.

The speech was a desperate attempt to show that the Brexit that was promised during the referendum could be delivered. Twelve months on, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s plan is failing. She must reflect on this, accept that Brexit on the terms it was sold is not possible, and be honest with people about the huge trade-offs ahead.


1)    “Certainty”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “The first objective is crucial. We will provide certainty wherever we can…I recognise how important it is to provide business, the public sector, and everybody with as much certainty as possible as we move through the process.”

The reality now:

  • Ministers still contradict one another on a regular basis on fundamental issues, including regulatory equivalence/divergence, the terms of a transition deal, and participation in the Customs Union.
  • Businesses have repeatedly criticised the Government for failing to provide any certainty. The CBI stated in its end-of-year letter at the end of 2017 that businesses needed “unity, clarity and certainty” from Government on Brexit, rather than “a different opinion every day”[1]


2)    “Control of our own laws”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “We will take back control of our laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.”

The reality now:

  • The Prime Minister has now accepted ECJ will continue to have jurisdiction in the UK, at the very least for any transition period.[2]
  • The European Council Article 50 guidelines from 15 December 2017 have also made this clear: “Such transitional arrangements, which will be part of the Withdrawal Agreement … supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures will also apply, including the competence of the Court of Justice of the European Union.”[3]


3)    “Strengthen the Union”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “A stronger Britain demands that we do something else – strengthen the precious union between the 4 nations of the United Kingdom.”

The reality now:

  • Theresa May’s attempts to yank the UK out of the Single Market and Customs Union are already being felt in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there is little support or no for her plan.
  • The fudged agreement reached on Northern Ireland with EU negotiators agreement could unravel after the Brexit Secretary said it is not "legally enforceable" and could be scrapped if the EU doesn't offer the Government the future trading terms it wants.[4]
  • A joint UK Government-European Commission report leaked in November, demonstrated 142 cross-border activities between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which would be affected by a hard-Brexit.[5]
  • In July, the Welsh First Minister called for the UK to stay in the Single Market.[6] He has also warned that Theresa May has failed to engage the Welsh Government on Brexit.
  • An economic assessment published by the Scottish Government in January 2018 demonstrated that a failure to remain in the single market, would see Scotland’s GDP around £12.7 billion lower by 2030, equivalent to £2,300 per year for each person in Scotland.[7]  


4)    “Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland”

What Theresa May said on 17 January 2017:

  • “[M]aintaining that Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland will be an important priority for the UK in the talks ahead…Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”

The reality now:

  • This has been an area of progress, with agreement reached with the EU on maintaining the Common Travel Area.
  • But the agreement on the divorce issues could still unravel after the Brexit Secretary said it is not "legally enforceable" and could be scrapped if the EU doesn't offer the Government the future trading terms it wants.[8]


5)    “Control of immigration”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “And that is why we will ensure we can control immigration to Britain from Europe … As home secretary for 6 years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe.”

The reality now:

  • It is the European Commission’s view that freedom of movement will continue during any transition period, “In line with the European Council guidelines of 15 December 2017, any transitional arrangements require the United Kingdom's continued participation in the Customs Union and the Single Market (with all four freedoms) during the transition.”[9]
  • May accepted this in her Florence speech, saying that the framework for this “strictly time-limited period” must be “the current structure of EU rules and regulations”. The only difference will be that from 29 March 2019, all new EU arrivals will be registered, which the Government could have already done if it wanted.[10]


6)    “Rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can.”

The reality now:

  • Despite the Government having reached an agreement at the end of the first phase of negotiations in December, Theresa May has said that “Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”[11]
  • The Prime Minister could have chosen to take the moral highground from the outset on this issue and guaranteed the rights of EU27 citizens living in the UK, unilaterally


7)    “Protect workers’ rights”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “Indeed, under my leadership, not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them.” 

The reality now:

  • The Government is seeking sweeping Henry VIII powers in the EU Withdrawal Bill, which could allow it to amend workers’ rights, and there is little evidence that it intends to build on existing EU-derived workers’ rights.
  • Reports from December 2017 suggested that some Cabinet ministers are pushing to scrap the EU-derived Working Time Regulations[12]. Theresa May was repeatedly offered the chance to refute these reports, but repeatedly failed to do so.[13]


8)    “Free trade with European markets”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “So as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets – and let European businesses do the same in Britain.”

The reality now:

  • Thanks to the Government’s shambolic approach to the negotiations, talks on the future relationship haven’t even begun yet.
  • Ministers say they will retain ‘the exact same benefits’ as we enjoy now in terms of trade with the EU, and that a new comprehensive free trade agreement can be negotiated before March 2019. The Trade Secretary says it will be the ‘easiest trade deal in human history’.
  • These are the Government’s aims and they are the benchmarks by which the Government will be judged over the coming months.


9)    “New trade agreements with other countries”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “A Global Britain must be free to strike trade agreements with countries from outside the European Union too…Countries including China, Brazil, and the Gulf States have already expressed their interest in striking trade deals with us.”

The reality now:

  • When asked, the Government was not able to provide a single country that has asked the UK for a post-Brexit trade deal[14].
  • The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has admitted that his department doesn’t have the capacity to strike new trade deals even if there was interest from other countries[15].
  • There is no guarantee that the will be able to ‘roll over’ the current trade deals with 65 countries from which the UK benefits as an EU member and whether this will be in any way straightforward, or even possible[16].
  • Indeed, the European Commissions’ recommendations for negotiating directives on the transitional deal even spell out that during transition, “The United Kingdom should continue to comply with the Union trade policy.”[17]


10)          “The best place for science and innovation”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “A Global Britain must also be a country that looks to the future. That means being one of the best places in the world for science and innovation.”

The reality now:

  • In November, it was reported that nearly 70% of European Union nationals working as scientists, engineers, vets and archaeologists were planning to leave Britain because of Brexit[18], whilst the head of parliament’s spending watchdog warned that Brexit threatens the UK's reputation for scientific research.[19]
  • In December, it was reported that Britain’s universities were already seeing a fall in their share of a crucial pot of European Union funding, with vice-chancellors fearing that UK projects were losing out even before Brexit had taken place.[20]


11)          “Co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “And a Global Britain will continue to co-operate with its European partners in important areas such as crime, terrorism and foreign affairs.”

The Reality now:

  • In her Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister did great damage by implicitly threatening an end to security cooperation if the UK didn’t get the trade deal it wants.[21]
  • Despite proposals by the Government in September to create a UK-EU Security treaty[22], the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has expressed a clear view: “The UK will no longer be a member of the European Defence Agency or Europol; The UK will not be able to benefit from the European Defence Fund the same way Member States will; The UK will no longer be involved in decision-making, nor in planning our defence and security instruments; Everything I have just said is the logical consequence of the sovereign choice made by the British. We regret this vote. But we respect the choice that has been made.”[23] 


12)          “A smooth, orderly Brexit”

What Theresa May said then:

  • “But the purpose is clear: we will seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we will do everything we can to phase in the new arrangements we require as Britain and the EU move towards our new partnership.”

The Reality now:

  • So far, as highlighted by this paper by Open Britain, there has been nothing “smooth” or “orderly” about Brexit. There is huge uncertainty over what the future actually entails. 
  • The idea of an “implementation period” has been largely dropped by the Government. Instead, it is now clear that the transition period will be the status quo minus a say over the rules. This will mean adhering to Single Market rules; acceptance of the jurisdiction of the ECJ; and continuing to pay into the budget.