Britain's PM May to call for national unity in major Brexit speech

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaving 10 Downing Street in central London, on Jan 11, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaving 10 Downing Street in central London, on Jan 11, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Theresa May will use a major speech on Brexit next week to call on Britons to reject the acrimony of last year's referendum and unite around the vision of a Britain more open to the world, her office said on Sunday (Jan 15).

Mrs May intends to kick off the formal process of negotiating the terms of Britain's exit from the European Union by the end of March, but has given little away about what deal she will be seeking, frustrating some investors, businesses and lawmakers.

She is due to make a speech in London on Tuesday before an audience including foreign diplomats as well as Britain's own Brexit negotiating team and other senior officials, Mrs May's Downing Street office said in a statement.

It said she would stress the need for Britons, who voted for Brexit by 52 to 48 per cent after a deeply divisive campaign, to unite around common goals such as protecting and enhancing workers' rights. "Now we need to put an end to the division and the language associated with it - 'Leaver' and 'Remainer' and all the accompanying insults - and unite to make a success of Brexit and build a truly Global Britain," Mrs May is expected to say.

Downing Street did not say whether Mrs May would reveal her stance on some of the key questions, such as whether she will try and keep Britain within the European single market or customs union or, if not, what level of access she will aim for.

The problem for Britain is that the EU is likely to insist on freedom of movement for EU citizens in return for full access to the single market, while many of those who voted for Brexit did so precisely in order to be able to restrict immigration.

Mrs May's speech will be closely watched by financial markets for information on which of these divergent goals she will prioritise.

After she said in a TV interview a week ago that post-Brexit Britain would not be able to keep "bits" of its EU membership, the pound fell sharply as the comment was interpreted as signalling a clean break from the single market.

Tuesday's speech will take place at Lancaster House, a grand Foreign Office property close to Buckingham Palace that has hosted numerous international summits.

Downing Street said the choice of venue was to underline Mrs May's theme of a global Britain.