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[LONDON] UK Prime Minister Theresa May signalled regaining control of immigration and lawmaking are her Brexit priorities even if that means quitting Europe's single market.
In her first televised interview of the new year, Ms May told Sky News on Sunday that leaving the European Union will be about "getting the right relationship, not about keeping bits of membership."
"We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer, so the question is what is the right relationship for the UK to have with the European Union when we are outside," she said. "We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws, but we still want the best possible deal for UK companies to be able to trade in and within the EU and European companies to operate and trade in the UK."
The comments suggest that with time running out before her own March 31 deadline to file for divorce, Ms May is willing to gamble Britain's trading relationship with its biggest market in return for greater sovereignty. Being part of the EU requires the UK to allow free movement of labour and to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Her EU counterparts have repeatedly warned that she will not be allowed to "cherry pick" and that membership of the tariff-free single market requires her maintaining free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. Ms May's hope will be that they will still be willing to strike a free trade deal with the UK to safeguard their own economies.
Ms May used the interview to deny the government's plan to exit the bloc is "muddled", saying she'll unveil details of her strategy in the coming weeks. In doing so, she defended herself against an allegation by Ivan Rogers, Britain's envoy to the EU who quit last week, that her government lacks an effective strategy for leaving the bloc.
She said no plan for Brexit was drawn up by her predecessor, David Cameron, and she needed to assess the situation and work out the correct way to act once Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is invoked, starting two years of talks.
"There hadn't been any plans made for Brexit so it was important for us to take some time to look at the issues, look at the complexity of the issues," Ms May said.
"Our thinking on this isn't muddled," she said, "I will be setting out some more details in coming weeks as we look ahead to triggering Article 50."
Steve Baker, who leads a grouping of about 60 Euroskeptic lawmakers from Ms May's Conservative Party, said the premier's comments were "great news for the UK".
"This is welcome clarification of a sensible position by the prime minister," Mr Baker said in an e-mail. "The best outcome for the UK is an ambitious trade deal plus control of our laws, trade policy and borders." While Mr Baker's support will be welcomed by Ms May, it will fuel allegations from opposition parties that the prime minister's attempts to balance the competing factions in her party mean she is not acting in the interests of the rest of the country.
"My worry is that Theresa May, instead of behaving like a prime minister should, is putting the leadership of her own deeply divided party ahead of her responsibilites as prime minister," Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC. Ms May is "trying to appease the increasingly right wing Brexiteers in her own party instead of prioritising what would be a sensible solution for the UK to stay in the single market for example," Ms Sturgeon said. "The interests of the country in these next few months have to come to the fore."
Education Secretary Justine Greening offered a glimpse of the intense work being done by the prime minister as she seeks to refine the strategy for leaving the 28-nation bloc. Ms May, who has a growing reputation among ministers and civil servants for her eagerness to be involved in policy detail, has personally overseen discussions on the issues, Ms Greening said.
"She's worked through methodically with cabinet colleagues the many, many areas we have to have clear thinking in place on," Ms Greening said in an interview with BBC TV. "The prime minister will take her own decision about how much she wants to disclose."
Ms May pledged to use the Brexit vote to drive a change in the relationship between people and the government, saying the state should be willing to step in to solve "burning injustices." Writing in the Sunday Telegraph of her vision for a "shared society", she said there is "more to life than individualism and self-interest" and rejected the idea that government should get out of the way.
"When the British people voted in the referendum last June, they did not simply vote to withdraw from the European Union; they voted to change the way our country works - and the people for whom it works - forever," she wrote. "It was a quiet revolution by those who feel the system has been stacked against them for too long - and an instruction to this Government to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few."
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