Britain looks set to leave the European Union by summer 2019 after triggering the formal process to pull out before the end of March next year, Theresa May has said.
The Prime Minister said Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be triggered in the first three months of 2017, marking the start of the two-year process to enact Brexit.
The process can be extended beyond two years if Britain and all other EU countries unanimously agree, but that prospect is seen as unlikely.
She made the announcement after revealing plans for a “Great Repeal Bill” to transpose all EU law applying to the UK into domestic law, ready for the day the country leaves the union.
Ahead of her speech on Brexit at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Mrs May told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “As you know, I have been saying that we wouldn’t trigger it before the end of this year so that we get some preparation in place.
“But yes, I will be saying in my speech today that we will trigger (Article 50) before the end of March next year.”
Mrs May added: “The remaining members of the EU have to decide what the process of negotiation is.
“I hope, and I will be saying to them, now that they know what our timing is going to be - it’s not an exact date but they know it will be in the first quarter of next year - that we’ll be able to have some preparatory work so that once the trigger comes we have a smoother process of negotiation.
“It’s not just important for the UK but important for Europe as a whole that we’re able to do this in the best possible way so we have the least disruption for businesses, and when we leave the EU we have a smooth transition from the EU.”
Mrs May said Parliament will be kept informed, adding: “This is not about keeping silent for two years, but it’s about making sure that we are able to negotiate, that we don’t set out all the cards in our negotiation because, as anybody will know who’s been involved in these things, if you do that up front, or if you give a running commentary, you don’t get the right deal.”
The Prime Minister was challenged on how she will seek to control immigration post-Brexit.
Asked if a work permit system would be adopted for skilled workers, Mrs May said: “We will look at the various ways in which we can bring in the controls that the British people want, and ensuring, as we have been in our immigration policy generally, that the brightest and best can come to the UK.”
Mrs May will later tell the Tory party conference that her “Great Repeal Bill” will scrap the 1972 European Communities Act, which gives direct effect to all EU law, and at the same time convert Brussels regulations into domestic law.
This will give Parliament the power to unpick the laws it wants to keep, remove or amend at a later date, in a move that could be welcomed by MPs keen to have a say over the terms of Brexit.
The move is also designed to give certainty to businesses and protection for workers’ rights that are part of EU law.
Brexit Secretary David Davis will also tell the conference: “To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying ‘when we leave, employment rights will be eroded’, I say firmly and unequivocally, ‘no they won’t’.”
The Bill is expected to be brought forward in the next parliamentary session (2017-18) and will not pre-empt the two-year process of leaving the EU, which begins when the Government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr Davis will say: “It’s very simple. At the moment we leave, Britain must be back in control. And that means EU law must cease to apply.
“To ensure continuity, we will take a simple approach. EU law will be transposed into domestic law, wherever practical, on exit day.
“It will be for elected politicians here to make the changes to reflect the outcome of our negotiation and our exit.
“That is what people voted for: power and authority residing once again with the sovereign institutions of our own country.”
The repeal Bill will end the primacy of EU law, meaning rulings by the European Court of Justice will stop applying to the UK once the legislation takes effect.
It will include powers to make changes to the laws using secondary legislation as negotiations over the UK’s future relationship proceed, although more wide-ranging amendments or new laws may come forward in separate Bills.
Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former spin doctor, expressed his frustration over Mrs May’s stance during the EU referendum.
Sir Craig, who has released a book entitled Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story Of Brexit, told the BBC: “It was very difficult in the lead-up to that campaign having a Home Secretary not reveal which side she was on.
“When she did reveal which side she was on, it was 51-49 and was very equivocal.”
He added: “It’s perfectly legitimate for Theresa May to do that. What the book is doing is recounting what was it like being in Downing Street to be part of this tumultuous situation.”