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UK PM May outlined Brexit fears pre-referendum

A month before the UK voted to exit the EU, now-Prime Minister Theresa May warned of its possible impact on UK businesses. With the extent of the UK's economic malaise now becoming clear, many accuse May of hypocrisy.

In a private audience with executives from the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, the then-home secretary was more vocal about her concerns than during the referendum campaign, according to a report leaked to "The Guardian" newspaper.

May - who became PM after an internal party reorganization that saw most of the senior advocates of the "Remain" campaign ousted in a bloodless coup - displayed a canny ability to distance herself from the Remain side in the run-up to the referendum. Her refusal to participate much in the campaign led Craig Oliver, David Cameron's former chief of communications, to suggest she may secretly be an "enemy agent" for the other side.

She did deliver a public speech in May setting out some of the reasons for staying in the EU, warning for example that it could have an impact on the development of the single market for the rest of the EU, but these new revelations seem to go further.

Speaking at a Goldman Sachs office in London on May 26, the then-home secretary far more clearly reiterated the economic benefits of staying in the EU and reportedly said "it was time the UK took a lead in Europe," and that she "hoped voters would look to the future rather than the past."

"I think the economic arguments are clear," she said. "I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think, as I was saying to you a little earlier, that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe.

"If we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say, do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence rather than a UK presence? So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms."

In recent weeks May's position has hardened, since she told the Conservative party conference in September that she wanted to prioritize immigration controls over being part of the single market.

"What I do think is that the UK needs to lead in Europe," she said. "I think over the years the UK has tended to take a view that Europe is something that is done to us; we have taken a rather backseat position to Europe. I think that when we go out there, when we can take the initiative and when we lead, we can achieve things. So I do think we need to make sure we are taking the lead."

Opposition "disappointed"

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said it was "disappointing that Theresa May lacked the political courage to warn the public as she did a bunch of bankers in private about the devastating economic effects of Brexit."

Phil Wilson, a Labour MP speaking for the Open Britain group that supported the UK staying in the single market, said: "It's good to know that privately Theresa May thinks what many of us have been saying publicly for a long time – leaving the single market would be bad for businesses and for our economy.

"Now she is prime minister, Theresa May is in an unrivalled position to act on her previous concerns – starting by putting membership of the single market at the heart of her government's negotiating position."

The show must go on

A spokesperson for the PM said: "Britain made a clear choice to vote to leave the EU and this government is determined to make a success of the fresh opportunities it presents."

The spokesperson also referred to recent comments about the financial impact of the EU withdrawal made by Brexit Secretary David Davis - whose position was created in the aftermath of the "Leave" vote. "David Davis made very clear in the House of Commons last week the importance the government places on financial services across the UK in the negotiation to come, as has the chancellor in recent weeks. We want a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union, which would be in the interests of both Britain and the EU."

Watch video 01:15

British PM Theresa May wants to avoid hard Brexit

jbh/kl (Reuters, The Guardian)

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