Theresa May has agreed with her cabinet that restricting immigration will be a red line in any negotiations with the EU, in a move that experts claim will end Britain’s membership of the single market.
The prime minister and her team, who met at Chequers – the PM’s country retreat – also confirmed that MPs will not be given a vote before the government triggers article 50, beginning the two-year countdown to a British exit.
“There was a strong emphasis on pushing ahead to article 50 to lead Britain successfully out of the European Union – with no need for a parliamentary vote,” May’s spokeswoman said, before setting out how restrictions to freedom of movement would be at the centre of any Brexit deal.
“Several cabinet members made it clear that we are leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, with a decisive view that the model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom and not an off-the-shelf solution,” she said.
“This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services.”
May began the session, which is the first cabinet meeting since the summer break, by telling her ministers that there will be “no attempts to stay in the EU by the back door”.
She said that meant no second referendum, before restating the slogan from the early part of her premiership: “Brexit means Brexit”.
Her spokeswoman said the group also had a long discussion on their commitment to the devolved nations of the UK, promising to “make sure Brexit works for all”. However, they made clear that it would be the UK government’s decision to establish the terms of Britain’s EU exit and when it would begin, ruling out any possibility of a Scottish veto.
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, said immigration controls meant Britain’s Brexit deal would not be along the lines of that used for Norway or Switzerland. Instead, it put the UK on track for a Canada-style agreement, with free trade for manufactured goods but not necessarily for services.
“People have been assuming there will have to be restrictions on immigration of some sort, either an emergency brake, or an Australian-style points system for European workers,” he said.
“Whatever system we go for it is going to be unacceptable to our partners if we want access to the single market. We will only have limited access to the single market and have to content ourselves with a free trade agreement, which would not cover many of our key services sectors including financial services.”
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has suggested that Britain could retain membership of the EU with restrictions on freedom of movement but European diplomats have responded by calling it a “pipe dream”.
Officials in Johnson’s department are some of the most keen in Whitehall to remain as close to Europe as possible, while those in the Treasury are also pushing hard for single market access in particular sectors such as financial services.
David Davis, secretary of state for the newly created Department for Exiting the EU, has claimed that European countries will offer Britain a good economic deal because it is in their interest to do so. Liam Fox, who will be leading trade efforts with the rest of the world, has argued that not being in the single market is a price worth paying for border control.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, seized on the cabinet’s discussions about no vote for MPs and no veto for the devolved nations.
“The country was dragged into this mess by a Tory party acting as a law unto themselves, and now they want to trust us to get them out of it, acting in exactly the same way,” she said.
“It is sheer, high-handed arrogance for them to say they will take all the decisions themselves, with no consultation of parliament or the public, with the devolved administrations consulted but not listened to, and with the governments of London and Gibraltar now not even mentioned.”
May and her team were keen to emphasise the idea that Britain would still be open for business and agreed to brand the first day of Tory conference as being about “global Britain – showing that we are more outward-looking than ever before”.
During a presentation, Tory party chairman Patrick McLoughlin said the party would have the largest attendance in a decade for October’s event, and said the party’s membership had grown by 50,000 over the summer.
The theme of the four-day gathering in Birmingham would be “a country that works for everyone”, he said, echoing the message delivered by May when she delivered a speech before entering Downing Street as prime minister for the first time.
At Wednesday’s meeting at her country retreat, which stretched across much of the day, with a political session in the afternoon without civil servants, May praised the fantastic success of Team GB in the Olympics. She called it “absolutely great” and wished the country’s Paralympians well.
The prime minister said she wanted to discuss social reform, arguing that a major priority was wanting “to be a government and a country that works for everyone”.
“I want it to be a society where it’s the talent that you have and how hard you’re prepared to work that determines how you get on, rather than your background,” she said.
And she insisted that the government had to discuss how “we can get tough on irresponsible behaviour in big business – again making sure that actually everyone is able to share in the country’s prosperity”.
The ministers were keen to stress that their party was “united” and to contrast that with Labour, which the spokeswoman described as an “inward-looking and divided opposition”.
The cabinet meeting came as a new ICM/Guardian poll gives the Conservatives a 14-point lead over the opposition, with May’s party up one point to 41%, while Labour has fallen one point to 27%.
The survey had Ukip third with 13%, followed by the Liberal Democrats on 9%.
The Tories’ strong lead could be underpinned by consumer confidence, according to ICM director Martin Boon, who said that while 53% of the public were confident in the measure of financial security, just 19% were not confident.
“The gap of +34 is well ahead of the +23 noted in March 2015 and indeed not beaten since June 2002. The rampant fears of Brexit appear to have manifestly failed to dent the hardy British consumer, at least for now,” he said.
The economic outlook was also discussed at cabinet alongside a commitment to fiscal discipline and “seizing the opportunity of Brexit to confirm the UK’s place as one of the great trading nations in the world”.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who sat next to the prime minister, updated colleagues on the campaign against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“The foreign secretary highlighted the progress that had been made in squeezing the territory held by Daesh [Isis], with 40% reclaimed, as well as a fall in support for Daesh’s ideology around the world,” added a spokeswoman.