7 Sep 2017

Brexit Bill in the Commons – but big developments outside too

The President of the European Parliament has suggested that Brexit should probably be dropped from the October European Council agenda.

Some Whitehall officials seem resigned to the October deadline being missed, despite warnings to Cabinet colleagues from the Chancellor that Brexit negotiations needed to give business clarity on the transition arrangements soon to avoid damaging investment decisions.

In the Commons, the Brexit Secretary signalled that the government would listen to concerns about the fast-track powers it is asking for in the EU Withdrawal Bill. There’s a wide anticipation amongst front benchers and backbenchers that the government will concede that some sort of panel of backbenchers should exist to check that government powers to change EU legislation pasted into UK law are not being abused.

While David Davis was in the Commons this morning taking questions from MPs, alongside his fellow DEXEU minister Steve Baker, the pro-Brexit group Mr Baker actively supports, the European Reform Group, was circulating a letter https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tory-group-launches-drive-for-a-hard-brexit-9mrz2nhxx it wanted Tory MPs to sign up to. The letter called for a transition to Brexit that allowed trade deals to be negotiated and signed from day one. It also warned against those who seek to use a transition period to keep the UK in the EU “by stealth?”

Who on earth could they have in mind?

Despite protestations that the letter (planned originally as a write-round to be published in a Sunday newspaper) was supportive of government policy, the truth is that government policy is not yet fixed, ministers won’t welcome attempts to tie their hands and the ERG knows very well that government policy is moving in the opposite direction.

The more passionate end of the pro-Brexit Tory ranks had been pretty quiet throughtout the summer. Today signalled they aren’t going to let the Chancellor and the Home Secretary have it all their own way. Iain Duncan Smith told the Commons on Tuesday that the transition period can only be entered into with a clear idea of where it is ending.

He and others appear worried that some forces in the government want to park the UK in a transition as close as possible to the status quo in the hope that the debate moves, over time, in their direction and public opinion shifts to wanting some arrangement much closer to the EU than the ERG would like.

Over the years, Tories have been categorised into groupings: in recent years, mods versus rockers, authoritarians versus social liberals. After the Brexit vote, the old “pro-EU” and “anti-EU” factions are morphing into a new division. There are those who want an arrangement that tries to harmonise wherever possible with the EU’s standards and rules post-Brexit, to maximise access to their markets, call it “continuity EU.” And there’s a “start again” faction, that sees leaving the EU as a moment to re-think more radically the way the country operates and to shake off the EU way of doing things.

Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd look like they have been trying to steer the Prime Minister towards the former arrangement. Theresa May has not yet publicly committed to their approach. Michel Barnier, speaking in Brussels today, underlined how the EU was still waiting to hear something definitive on the UK approach to transition.

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