By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Few noticed, but when Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would once again decide alone how “we label our food” after quitting the European Union it was what many of her pro-Brexit lawmakers had dreamt of.
After years of being dismissed as “headbangers”, life-long euroskeptics in May’s ruling Conservatives felt they had finally won over the party when their prime minister told an annual conference on Sunday that “we are going to leave the EU” to reclaim sovereignty and control the flow of people into Britain.
“We are all leavers now,” said Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen, who describes himself as an “ardent Brexiteer” and puts food packaging at the top of his list of annoying and expensive EU regulations.
For the new prime minister’s aides, her speech in Britain’s second biggest city Birmingham hit the spot. So did the reaction from party members who overwhelmingly took her words to mean she may be ready for a “hard Brexit” — a clean break with the EU and its single market.
She has silenced a wing of her party which all but sealed the fate of her predecessor David Cameron when pressure from euroskeptic lawmakers helped force him to hold the EU membership referendum in June. Her speech was also a strong statement of intent for Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Some party members had feared that May might delay Brexit because she campaigned, albeit quietly, to remain in the EU while she served in Cameron’s cabinet before the June 23 referendum. Instead, the prime minister won cheers.
“We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts,” she said to applause.
“And that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.”
But while she seems a convert to their cause, May has won herself the much-needed trust from her divided party offering her some freedom to negotiate a very “British” deal out of some of the most complicated talks the country has ever launched.
VICTORY, OF SORTS
May’s speech to the party faithful was the first real taste of her stance on Britain’s exit from the European Union beyond her catchphrase “Brexit means Brexit”.
Unveiling her plan to trigger the formal divorce procedure by the end of March next year, May also said Britain would take control of immigration and no longer need to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
By mentioning food packaging, she also hit at the heart of the smaller irritations that have spurred many in her party and beyond to campaign for Britain to leave the EU – what they describe as excessive regulation and legislation that have stifled business and curbed the country’s independence.
“I can’t tell you how long I have waited to hear a prime minister deliver a speech on Europe that Theresa May delivered this afternoon,” said Liam Fox, an arch euroskeptic May brought into her cabinet as trade minister.
“All my political life I have waited for this moment, it is a golden opportunity for our country and for the wider world. Every single one of us has a moral duty to ensure that it succeeds and that is the challenge that we have.”
With them on side, and feeling for the first time in their political lives as “the establishment”, May can now plow on with what she has called her “ambitious” plan to win Britain not only sovereignty and control over migration from the EU, but also “the right deal” with most of her party’s support.
Markets have bet that the commitment to immigration restrictions in May’s speech means she is heading for a “hard Brexit” that could hurt Britain’s economy because it will lose tariff-free access to the single market of 500 million people.
May’s aides reject that premise and say it is still too early to discuss the outcome of a negotiation that hasn’t begun yet. Asked whether prioritizing control over immigration meant Britain would sacrifice access to the single market, one aide said the answer was “going to be a circular conversation at the moment” while the position was worked out.
More pro-European members of her team, such as interior minister Amber Rudd who was a leading campaigner for Britain to remain in the EU before the referendum, also said the government had yet to take a position on several of the key issues.
“We know some things that the (referendum) result means, but there is a lot within that that we don’t know,” she told an event on the sidelines of the conference, adding that she looked forward to putting her different viewpoint forwards.
“Brexit means Brexit but there’s a lot to be negotiated, to be agreed, to be discussed, not just at cabinet level but nationally, within the European Union, potentially internationally.”
Finance minister Philip Hammond also struck a sober tone, saying that he would protect both the economy and businesses through what he described as the “turbulence” of Brexit.
But with some pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers describing May’s speech as “pitch-perfect”, the new prime minister may be able to wrest compromise from them on some issues.
One lawmaker said if May did not win the “right deal” on immigration straight away, “we’ll sort it later”. Daniel Hannan, a European Parliament member considered by many to be the architect of the Brexit campaign, said because the vote was so close, at 52 to 48 percent, there was no mandate for severing “all links” with the EU.
“It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power within the context of containing military security and commercial ties. I think it is possible to satisfy most people,” he said.
Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin, who also campaigned to leave the EU, said he now sees his role as making proposals, such as encouraging the government to unilaterally drop tariffs to try to prompt the EU to do the same.
“I keep saying to one or two of my more die-hard colleagues … the war is over, you can come out now,” he told Reuters. “If the government was going to – and it’s not going to happen – compromise the outcome of the referendum in any substantial way, there would have to be another referendum.”
(additional reporting by William James; editing by Peter Graff)