Theresa May’s defence of “the precious, precious Union” takes centre stage

Let Labour tie themselves in knots over an election or another referendum. Let the Brexiteers demand the abandonment of Chequers. The lady’s not for turning, to coin a phrase. And more: she has rejected their favourite option, a Canada plus free trade deal, because it threatens the unity of the United Kingdom.

Those were her essential messages to the travelling Westminster lobby  on board  the plane  to New York for the UN General Assembly. And she invoked the taoiseach twice in support of her belief that a deal will be done by November. If we take her at her word, her ideal deal will be closer to “Norway” and therefore to the EU. That brings her straight into confrontation with her Brexiteer critics only a few days before her party’s annual conference.Her stress on  threat to the Union may give her a patriotic rallying cry  in compensation.

In spite of Keir  Starmer’s prediction that Labour are sure to oppose whatever she brings back from Brussels, the vision of enough cross party support for such a deal is at least plausible. .“Norway” may retain alignment with the single market and the customs union for a transition period but the backstop remains in the background. We await her version of a border solution and Leo Varadkar’s reasons for believing that a withdrawal deal by November is feasible.

This is FT reporter Laura Hughes’ account of the chats on the plane

Theresa May has raised the stakes in her fight with Conservative Eurosceptics, saying that a “no deal” Brexit would be better than a Canada-style trade deal that split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Tory Brexiters, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, want to throw out Mrs May’s Chequers compromise Brexit plan in favour of a free trade deal, similar to the one struck by the EU with Canada.  But speaking as she travelled to the UN General Assembly in New York, Mrs May suggested that any Canada-style offer from Brussels would only apply to the mainland UK with Northern Ireland carved off as a separate customs territory. Mrs May said her Chequers plan — which proposes a free trade area for goods under the EU rule book — was a viable proposal that addressed the need to keep the Irish border open.

Asked if no deal was better than a Canada plus deal, Mrs May said: “First of all I have always said no deal is better than a bad deal. I think a bad deal would be for example a deal that broke up the United Kingdom. We want to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom.”  She added: “What we have put on the table is a good deal, it’s a deal which retains the union of the United Kingdom, our constitutional integrity, it’s a deal that provides for no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, protects jobs and enables us to have a good trading relationship with Europe and also the rest of the world.” The prime minister also ruled out a general election if any Brexit deal she secures in Brussels was rejected by the House of Commons, saying: “It would not be in the national interest to have an election.

Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 News blogged

The Prime Minister was asked if a “Canada +” agreement would be better or worse than “no deal” and indicated it would be worse. It would, she argued, be bad for the British economy and would break up the U.K. She will be hoping that the argument that she is defending the Union of the United Kingdom will go some way to assuage critics at the Tory Conference which starts on Sunday. Some of her internal critics will say she is rolling over unnecessarily on the border issue and the EU should be stared down and dared to put up border controls. Others will claim the ERG has produced solutions that knock out the need for any border checks.

In interview he added that her strong line against a border down the Irish Sea was based on her belief that it would undermine the Union. If Northern Ireland was allowed to be significantly different from GB,  Nicola Sturgeon would demand that Scotland would be next.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London