Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon hold ‘feisty’ Brexit meeting
“It’s not binary,” was Theresa May’s message to leaders of the devolved administrations today in Downing Street. A message she repeated in the Commons when she was challenged by Labour’s Andy Burnham about claims that she was opting for “Hard Brexit” (a much more distant relationship with the EU) over “Soft Brexit” (a closer relationship).
Charles Grant at the Centre for European Reform says he hasn’t given up on a deal that’s in the greyer area in between.
That would require Britain to go for less stringent immigration controls on EU citizens, it might require Britain to pay some money into the EU even if it isn’t into the overall EU kitty and is set aside for specific purposes. It might include Britain accepting a new authority that can judge agreements between the UK and the EU that isn’t the European Court of Justice.
You regularly hear figures in Whitehall connected with the Brexit decision point out that the Government hasn’t ruled out paying money into the EU in some form. That, they think, could buy some significant favours without crossing the voters who voted for Brexit.
Much could depend on where Britain’s economy looks like it is heading as Mrs May takes the critical decisions on Brexit policy. If the trends are very poor there will be more pressure from business to go soft.
Likewise, much in the EU 27 response could depend on where their confidence levels are at the crunch point in the talks. If populism has been on the march by the time the talks get crunchier then the EU 27 could be in fear of the life of the whole project and circling the wagons.
The meeting with the heads of the devolved administrations was variously described as “feisty” (Nicola Sturgeon), “forceful” (one devolved administration aide) and “forthright” (Martin McGuinness). One Cabinet minister at the talks said they were “robust” but the other words used suggested they had become emotional and that would be wrong.
The devolved administrations had to wait 122 days after the referendum for a meeting where, they all insisted, they’d learnt precisely nothing about the government’s position on Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon mocked the offer of a hotline number to the Brexit Secretary David Davis. What was the point in that if he didn’t know what he was doing, she said, after the meeting was over.
The leaders of the devolved administrations have now got a format for meetings, some promised routes of contact and some kind of schedule for future meetings. Beyond that, they are in the dark.
Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, warned Theresa May that pessimism was filling the void in business circles and that there was a real risk that companies up sticks on the basis of rumour about Britain’s stance on Brexit if the Prime Minister doesn’t fill that void with something more substantial. Mrs May said that was the way to get the worst possible deal and the best that MPs could hope for was some “high level negotiating principles” and a few debates to discuss them.
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