PM Theresa May has come under intense criticism from politicians across the UK and Europe after it emerged that she had warned of the dangers of Brexit in a private talk at Goldman Sachs a month before the referendum vote.
The prime minister was accused by a string of MPs, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, of ignoring her own concerns about the risks of leaving the single market, as revealed in her remarks to City bankers that were leaked to the Guardian on Tuesday night.
In Germany, politicians from both governing parties accused May of failing to show leadership. They said her remarks demonstrated that it would be impossible to leave the European Union without economic consequences.
Corbyn attacked May for failing to set out her plan for Brexit to the British people as clearly as she had once expressed her beliefs to her elite audience. “The prime minister has given her private views on Brexit to Goldman Sachs bankers, but refuses to give the British people a clear plan for negotiations,” the Labour leader said. “It shouldn’t take a leaked tape for the public to find out what she really thinks.”
Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader and leading member of the Open Britain campaign group, said the revelation “demonstrated that the prime minister was just as worried privately as the rest of us are publicly about the economic impact of the hard, destructive Brexit her government seems set on”.
He said it showed she clearly understood the economic risks of leaving the single market and urged her to share internal government analysis about the danger to the economy.
“If private warnings are to be matched by proper public debate, it is essential that the government is not allowed to hoard vital analysis of the impact on our economy of leaving the single market. This work is being done in government and it must now be published,” he said.
In the hour-long session at Goldman, May said: “I think the economic arguments are clear. I think being part of a 500 million [population] 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.”
As prime minister, May has appeared to pursue a hard Brexit stance – prioritising cutting immigration over staying in the single market, while refusing to elaborate any further on her plans for taking the UK out of the EU.
Miliband was one of a several of politicians, including from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party and even some Conservatives, who said the prime minister’s private comments highlighted the need for her to heed her own warnings about the economic dangers of Brexit.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said it was disappointing that May “lacked the political courage to warn the public as she did a bunch of bankers in private”, while the SNP said it showed May agrees with Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon about the dangers of leaving the single market.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn questioned Theresa May over the leak during prime minister’s questions. Photograph: PA
Labour will seek to capitalise on the prime minister’s difficulties and divisions over the EU. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell will give a speech on Thursday warning of “Bankers’ Brexit” as the Conservatives “look to cut special sweetheart deals for big business and bankers, while ignoring manufacturers and small businesses”.
“As May told Goldman Sachs earlier in the year, the chaotic Brexit the hardliners favour would lead to job losses and businesses leaving the country,” he is to say.
Anna Soubry, the former Conservative business minister, was more diplomatic, saying she had been heartened by the prime minister’s comments as it indicated she was aware of the dangers of leaving the trading bloc. “She clearly knows what the benefits of the single market are and how important it is,” Soubry said.
“And we now have to retain our membership, and in order to do that we will have to loosen up our views on immigration. We know that can be difficult, but she knows the benefits, and because she knows the benefits, she knows what we have to do.
“The most important thing is getting the best deal for Britain, and we can’t have the guiding principles and terms decided behind closed doors.”
No 10 attempted to play down the significance of the leaked tape from a month before the poll, insisting that the prime minister – who was pro-remain before the June poll – had expressed the same views in the campaign publicly and now wants the best deal that can allow Britain to trade freely with and within the single market.
Her official spokeswoman said: “The PM made a speech at the end of April talking about the risks [of Brexit] and also the opportunities and that we can be a successful country both inside and outside the EU. The British people made the decision we will be outside the EU and the PM is now focused on delivering that and making a success of it”.
She added that May did not shy away from the fact she had supported remain.
“She’s been clear and talked about that position she took in the campaign,” the spokeswoman said. “But this wasn’t the decision of one person, it was put to the British people, they made a decision, we have to focus on how to make it work.
“That’s why we are now focused on our principles as we go into these negotiations, understanding what the specific interests are, meeting investors overseas, engaging with businesses here, to establish a full picture to guide those objectives in negotiations.”
Politicians in Europe took a less charitable approach to the remarks. Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said: “It is the prime minister’s first and foremost duty to prevent her country from any harm. Of course, she is now confronted with a huge dilemma, because she simply cannot fulfil the Brexiters’ expectations: leaving the EU and being able to lead the country to economic prosperity at the same time has always been an illusion.
“Theresa May apparently was well aware of this fact in the past and should now openly address it.”
Axel Schäfer, deputy chairman of Germany’s Social Democrats, added: “The Guardian’s coverage shows that Theresa May is currently arguing against her own convictions. In May she passionately warned a group of bank managers about the dangers of Brexit.
“Leaving the EU is going to be neither a political or economic success: Theresa May recognised this as recently as a month before the referendum. Why she didn’t show a similar engagement for the remain campaign in public remains a mystery. That’s not how you show responsibility and leadership in politics”.
Later, David Jones, a minister in the Brexit department, was forced to defend the prime minister’s comments in a select committee hearing when pressed by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock.
“I think really that the battle of the referendum is now over and various members of the government adopted various positions during the campaign,” he said.
“The fact is the government is now determined to deliver British withdrawal and we have the fullest possible support from all elements of the civil service in achieving that.”
May also faced embarrassment as Mark Garnier, a trade minister, declined to repeat her trademark phrase that “Brexit means Brexit”, telling the BBC’s World at One that it “doesn’t give that much clarity”.