British Prime minister declines to commit to points-based system and extra £100m a week for health service as Japan and US warn of exit risks to Britain May’s comments on the way to Hangzhou in China were made before what turned out to be a trying start to the international summit.
She had been hoping to pitch the UK as a global leader in free trade during her first major outing on the world stage. However, she was immediately confronted with warnings about the consequences of leaving the EU, as well as diplomatic tensions with the Chinese over their proposed investment in UK nuclear power.
Theresa May has cast doubt on whether Brexit will lead either to a points-based immigration system or an extra £100m a week for the NHS – two central promises made by the successful campaign to leave the European Union.
The prime minister declined to endorse pledges made by the official Vote Leave group as she headed to China for the G20 summit, where Japan and the US have issued strong warnings about the consequences of exiting the EU.
In an unprecedented set of demands over the terms of Britain’s exit, Tokyo said Japanese firms could move to other parts of Europe unless many of the current privileges of membership were maintained.
Speaking from her prime ministerial plane, May questioned whether the type of system that admits migrants based on their skills was effective, and did not rule out retaining preferential access arrangements for EU citizens. “One of the issues is whether or not points-based systems do work,” she said, stressing that there was “no single silver bullet” on reducing immigration.
May also refused to commit to working towards the promises made by Vote Leave of an extra £100m a week to the NHS, scrapping VAT on fuel bills or ending contributions to the EU budget.
She would only say: “I’m going to work for what I just said I’m going to work for: the best possible deal for the UK in terms of the relationship that we would have with the EU, following us leaving.”
Her decision not to endorse the key planks of the Vote Leave manifesto may anger some of the electorate who thought they were voting for firm pledges made by politicians now senior in May’s government, such as Boris Johnson.
On becoming prime minister, May satisfied many Tory leave campaigners with a pledge that “Brexit means Brexit”, but she has not set out what this means, beyond a pledge to move away from the current system of free movement of EU citizens.
The prime minister has repeatedly said she intends to make a success of leaving the EU but admitted this weekend that there were difficult times ahead for the economy, even though it is currently doing better than many predicted before the 23 June referendum.
She backed the position of the former chancellor George Osborne that there were no plans for more welfare cuts, but left the door open for this to shift if the economy deteriorated. “We are continuing the plans we have as a government,” she said. “Obviously we have to look and see what happens in the economy, and how the economy does start to move … We’ve got the plans that are there at the moment. And obviously anyone would be looking at how the economy pans out.”
After her first bilateral meeting with President Obama, May was told that the US wanted to focus on trade negotiations with the EU and a bloc of Pacific nations before considering a deal with the UK.
The message from Japan to the UK subsequently emerged, warning of a series of corporate exits from the UK unless some of the privileges that come with access to the single market are maintained.
The document from Tokyo lists the possible consequences of Brexit and a series of specific requests from significant Japanese investors. “Japanese businesses with their European headquarters in the UK may decide to transfer their head-office function to continental Europe if EU laws cease to be applicable in the UK after its withdrawal,” the report concludes.
Earlier, Obama had promised to work hard to stop “adverse effects” of Brexit and said a very special relationship between the two nations still existed. But he also made clear that it would not make sense to prioritise a UK trade deal above existing negotiations with EU and Pacific countries.
“We are going to do everything we can to make sure the consequences of the decision don’t end up unravelling what is already a very strong and robust economic relationship,” he said. “But first things first. The first task is figuring out what Brexit means with respect to Europe. And our first task is making sure we go forward on TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] negotiations in which we have already invested a lot of time and effort.”
It is understood that David Davis, May’s new secretary of state for exiting the EU, will update parliament on Monday about the government’s work towards Brexit, as MPs return after the summer recess.
May is likely to come under pressure from MPs on both sides of the debate, as well as companies, to be more specific about her Brexit vision in the coming weeks.
Vote Leave, led by May’s cabinet ministers Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel, had promised the electorate before the EU referendum that voting out would mean a “genuine Australian-style, points-based immigration system” by the time of the next election.
The campaign group said those seeking to move to Britain should be admitted on the basis of their skills, without discrimination on the grounds of nationality, making clear EU citizens should not be given any preferential access to the UK.
Asked about bringing in a points-based immigration system, May said: “A lot of people talk about points-based systems always being the answer in immigration. There is no single silver bullet that is the answer in terms of dealing with immigration.”
When pressed on whether failing to bring in such a system would not respect the reasons people voted for Brexit, May said: “People voted, I think, for control. What they wanted to see was control of the freedom of movement of the European Union countries into the United Kingdom.”
During the referendum campaign, in which she backed remain, May had appeared to be negative about the idea of a points-based system but this is her first steer on the subject since the vote.
She was also asked about whether she would hand more money to the NHS, and scrap VAT on energy bills using funds saved by leaving the EU. These were two more promises made by Vote Leave, whose senior politicians toured the country in a bus saying £350m a week sent to the EU could help fund the NHS instead.
Shortly before the vote, this was refined by Vote Leave to a promise of £100m a week more for the NHS out of money saved from ending contributions.
Asked whether she would work towards these goals, May would not commit to either pledge. She also would not rule out giving any contributions to the EU budget or retaining full access to the single market, which many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and Ukip figures would find unacceptable.