Brexit has dominated politics this week – what’s new? – but interestingly the subtle differences in the use of language and choice of words have taken centre stage in the debate.This article is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of the referendum vote and does not offer a political opinion; instead it highlights the subtle use of language as leading politicians from both sides have been discussing and debating Brexit. Again!

Theresa May, the ‘Remain’ Home Secretary who ended up being the Prime Minister holding the pen that signed the letter to trigger Article 50, has often said, “Brexit means Brexit”. Some Brexiteers have argued that this means leaving the European Union (EU) – that one’s a given – and leaving the single market and leaving the customs union. Indeed they believe that there shouldn’t be any formal links with the EU once the UK has departed and are not concerned if negotiations result in a ‘No Deal’ outcome. These are the ‘hard’ Brexiteers.

Others, including some who voted ‘Remain’, have been arguing for a ‘soft’ Brexit. They acknowledge that the UK will be leaving the EU and, in all likelihood the single market, but they have argued for the UK to remain in the customs union in order to enable tariff-free trade to continue across the UK border into the Republic of Ireland and France, and beyond. It has been argued that this is crucial to prevent the reintroduction of the ‘hard’ border across the island of Ireland and the effect that this may have on the sustainability of the Good Friday Agreement. The use of the definite article the clearly states that it is the existing customs union that this group wishes the UK to remain within after Brexit.

On Monday of this week, the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn stated in a speech delivered in Coventry that post-Brexit Labour wishes to be part of a customs union. Corbyn’s use of the indefinite article a clarified Labour’s position. The party does not wish the country to remain in the customs union following Brexit, but rather, as Corbyn stated, for the UK “to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union”.

Fast forward to today, and the Prime Minister gave a keynote speech in London that included more detail of the UK’s negotiating position than had previously been presented in the public domain. Theresa May stated, indeed confirmed, that the “UK has been clear it is leaving the Customs Union” and added that the “EU has also formed a customs union with some other countries.” It is interesting to note that additional emphasis to the has been placed in the printed text of the speech by capitalising the Customs Union, whereas all lowercase has been used for a customs union.

When the Prime Minister concluded the section of her speech that related to trade, she stated that “a fundamental principle in our [UK’s] negotiating strategy is that trade at the UK-EU border should be as frictionless as possible with no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We believe that this can be achieved via… a customs arrangement.”

The devil is, as always, in the detail but it appears that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are on the same page, stating that the UK should have a post-Brexit agreement when it comes to customs… except that Jeremy Corbyn wants a customs union. But is there actually any difference? I would argue that there isn’t. In this context, a customs agreement will be impossible to implement unless the UK and the EU join together – make a union – within the confines of the agreement. If there isn’t any difference, why did Theresa May use a different noun?

Firstly, a Conservative Prime Minister cannot be seen to be taking policy ideas from and agreeing with the Labour leader. If May had said “achieved by a customs union” then Labour politicians and the hard-line Brexiteers would have gone straight into attack mode, even if they were attacking with separate motives. Secondly, hard-line Brexiteers and the Conservative Euro-sceptic backbenchers want to distance themselves completely from the European Union and anything that sounds remotely close to it.

Theresa May and her speechwriters, by using “agreement” instead of “union”, avoided providing more ammunition to those who may wish to remove her as Prime Minister while outlining a similar negotiating policy that Corbyn had proposed four days earlier. Very subtle and a clever use of language.

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