Theresa May privately warned that companies would leave the UK if the country voted for Brexit during a secret audience with investment bankers a month before the EU referendum.
A recording of her remarks to Goldman Sachs, leaked to the Guardian, reveals she had numerous concerns about Britain leaving the EU. It contrasts with her nuanced public speeches, which dismayed remain campaigners before the vote in June.
Speaking at the bank in London on 26 May, the then home secretary appeared to go further than her public remarks to explain more clearly the economic benefits of staying in the EU. She told staff it was time the UK took a lead in Europe, and that she hoped voters would look to the future rather than the past.
In an hour-long session before the City bankers, she also worried about the effect of Brexit on the British economy.
“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.”
Her warning about the importance of the UK’s membership of the EU comes in marked contrast to her positioning in recent weeks.
May said at the Conservative party conference that she wanted to prioritise reducing immigration over being part of the single market. In her speech, she said British companies needed the “maximum freedom to trade and operate in the single market” but not at the expense of “giving up control of immigration again” or accepting the jurisdiction of judges in Luxembourg.
At Goldman Sachs, May also said she was convinced Britain’s security was best served by remaining in Europe because of tools such as the European arrest warrant and the information-sharing between the police and intelligence agencies.
“There are definitely things we can do as members of the European Union that I think keep us more safe,” she said.
The disclosures could prove embarrassing for the prime minister, who faced criticism for lying low during the referendum campaign and offering only luke-warm support for the remain side.
In April, May gave a speech in which she set out some of the reasons for staying in the EU, warning that it could have an impact on the development of the single market for the rest of the EU if the UK left. But her comments at the Goldman Sachs event a month later go further in warning about the dangers to the British economy from businesses relocating to continental Europe.
During the referendum campaign, May infuriated senior Conservative colleagues on the remain side by largely staying out of the day-to-day arguments in favour of staying in the EU. One of her major pro-remain interventions was overshadowed by an announcement that she would like to take the UK out of the European convention on human rights, which she quickly ditched when running for the party leadership.
Her refusal to participate much in the campaign led Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former chief of communications, to wonder if she was secretly an “enemy agent” for the other side. However, others have suggested she believed in the arguments for staying in but was keeping her powder dry in case of a pro-Brexit vote.
May went to Goldman Sachs as a guest speaker and answered questions from the floor. In relaxed exchanges, she praised Cameron, the then prime minister, and said he had returned with important concessions from his EU summit earlier in the year.
She sidestepped a question about whether she wanted to be prime minister and focused on explaining why Britain should stay in the EU. May said: “That is one of my messages in terms of the issue of the referendum, actually we shouldn’t be voting to try to recreate the past, we should be voting for what is right for the future.”
Goldman Sachs confirmed May had spoken to staff but was not paid. She accepted an invitation as part of the bank’s [email protected] programme, in which high achievers from all walks of like are given a chance to reflect on their experiences and answer questions.
Previous speakers in the series include double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes, David Benioff, the co-creator of the Game of Thrones TV series, and Loyd Grossman, the man behind the eponymous sauces. Some of the speakers are listed online, although May is not.
In the US, the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, made three private speeches to Goldman Sachs staff in 2013, the contents of which she originally refused to divulge during a bitter primary contest with leftwing rival Bernie Sanders. She was paid $675,000 (£554,000), and transcripts eventually released by WikiLeaks show her taking a much softer line on Wall Street than she had publicly claimed.
Introduced in her private session at the bank as the “longest-serving home secretary this century”, May spoke in much more explicit terms than ever before about the need for the UK to act from the front in Europe.
“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.”
She dismissed concerns of senior figures in the military who had claimed that the EU “was making life more difficult for soldiers”.
“Actually very often when people talk about it I suspect, and I haven’t spoken to them, I suspect that they are not talking about the European Union, but the European convention on human rights and the European court of human rights, which is separate from the European Union.”
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”.
He added: “More disappointing is that now she is supposedly in charge, she is blithely ignoring her own warnings and is prepared to inflict an act of monumental self-harm on the UK economy by pulling Britain out of the single market.”
Phil Wilson, a Labour MP speaking for the Open Britain group campaigning for the UK to stay 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.”
Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, said May was “right then – and it underlines why single market membership should be her ambition now”.
A No 10 spokesman 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.
“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.”
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