26 Jan 2018

Tory divisions growing over Brexit

David Davis’ speech in Middlesbrough has not been helped by yesterday’s appearance of the EU guidelines for negotiating the Brexit transition. The speech is asking for some concessions from the EU27 which it looks like the government has already won. It’s a bit like the magician saying he’s going to produce the rabbit from the hat when the audience can already see the fluffy bunny sitting on the stage beside him.

The rabbits the government is promising include a right to be consulted (especially on fisheries quotas) during the transition. Fisheries are specifically name-checked in the EU guidelines so the red line Michael Gove put down on that has been accommodated. It’s less than the government would like but as much as they could have expected, it’s something they can say has been conceded.

Likewise the EU guidelines say only that the U.K. can’t “conclude” trade deals with third parties during the transition which meets Mr Davis’ plea that the U.K. should be allowed to do the groundwork to have them ready. Another concession, the government can claim.

It’s useful that the EU spells these out but it would’ve looked like bad form not to have engaged with the requests from the U.K.

The government is hoping that Mr Davis’ speech reassures the deeply uneasy Brexiteer ranks in Parliament that there is no pattern of slippage across government policy on Brexit. Those MPs I’ve spoken to will take some convincing. Philip Hammond’s words in Davos yesterday, seen as allying himself with the CBI pro-Customs Union line, didn’t help with that. Many of these Brexiteers initially backed Andrea Leadsom in the 2016 leadership contest and then rowed in behind Theresa May as the best way of securing Brexit – any other leader might split the party and threaten delivery of the prize in March 2019. When the leadership was revisited after the 2017 general election disaster, that calculation was revisited but sustained. Now some (though not all) are opening their minds to the idea of a re-think.

The arguments over the transition are pretty much done. That they are being aired now is a proxy for the real battle over final state, Phase 2 of the negotiations.

One Cabinet minister who sits on the Brexit committee described the “three baskets” approach which Brexit supreme Olly Robbins explained to ministers before Christmas, as “complete bollocks,” but as Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform explains, they are working on the basis that this is what the U.K. will be asking for. In the FT today, Philip Stephens says nobody really has a clue what the government position is.

The baskets approach imagines splitting up sectors and interests: basket 1: fully  aligned as now with the EU; basket 2 : aligned but using different machinery and basket 3: diverging from EU rules. But given that some ministers think you should have huge chunks of the British economy in the first two baskets and Boris Johnson would have the bulk of it in the third, asking the EU to sign off on an approach that leaves the definition of our relationship for another day could be a tall order.

Some Tory pro-Brexit backbenchers sense that senior civil servants are monstering the Prime Minister and softening Brexit beyond recognition or use. That’s what provoked Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech last night and it is what is behind the growing uprising around the Customs Bill which I mentioned last week.

This is all layered on top of a reshuffle that promised much and delivered little, a sense that the government would rather not try major reform beyond Brexit than try and be blocked. Two anecdotes circle widely at the moment of encounters with the Prime Minister in which she was briefed on policy ideas by Tory MPs and either looked across to her advisers to respond or read out a pre-prepared note in reply.

It could all go away. It could go and come back after the May local elections. It could come back every few months as Theresa May’s leadership stretches another year or two. But the talk amongst Tory MPs of pressing the button and trying to see if the Tory Party can get another leader without falling apart is around.

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4 reader comments

  1. James says:

    It is Middlesbrough. As a senior journalist, you should know how to spell this town now.

  2. jhill says:

    Maybe Mrs May needs to take a HANDBAG to the EU leaders as Thatcher once did??


    May is not decisive enough with EU crats!!
    Voters will punish both parties in the next election…for not being strong with EU on their behalf!

  3. jhill says:

    How about Ch 4 holding politicians feet to the fire for not honouring the OUT vote that the majority voted for??
    MPs neglecting to follow voter instructions is NOT fake News!

  4. H Statton says:

    Prior to the 2017 general election Theresa May was ready to “Make all Sail” to a hard Brexit. How things change. Now, the Brexit galleon is in danger of floundering in the shallows with some crew members floating the idea of throwing the captain overboard.

    The second phase of EU negotiations has an official name – it is the “implementation” phase. In addressing leaders from the Confederation of British Industry Philip Hammond endorsed the idea of maintaining “[the] closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK post-Brexit”. Despite Hammond’s upbeat announcement it has not exactly pleased the hard Brexiteers who remain fond of the cliff-edge option.

    But, the Tory divisions are beginning to warrant taxonomic classification, and an emerging branch is the hard Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. However, his constituents in North East Somerset voted Remain in the EU referendum, a little bit of a thorn?

    Once thought of as a Queensbury Rules shadow-boxer, he’s definitely warming to the use of the spit bucket. In his political ‘youth’ he overtly and regularly praised May’s leadership, but now the tide may be turning.

    His personal ‘project fear’: the plague of our colonial crimes coming back to haunt us. The Battle of Plassey (23rd June 1757 – Rees-Mogg fought in absentia) established British rule in India; justifiably the Indian people sought retribution. So, beware! Fear the gang of 27!

    Rees-Mogg may not be the opium of the people but as Matthew d’Ancona wrote in the Guardian quoting a Times article, “Boris Johnson, increasingly seen by younger Tories as a Nokia to the Moggster’s iPhone X, plays catch-up.” What did the Times mean by “younger Tories?” The average age of a Tory supporter according to conservative Bow Group, is an astonishing 72 years old! ‘The
    Australian’ (2017) was also none too complimentary: “Boris Johnson is becoming the Where’s Wally of international diplomacy.” Is his name crossed off the commonwealth invitation list?

    The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip having seen his majority halved at the last general election might feel his helium balloon losing altitude. It’s difficult to know. His constituents voted Remain in the EU referendum – only five London boroughs voted Brexit – a sticky wicket? Remainer Amber Rudd was made to sweat retaining the Hastings and Rye seat, which voted for Brexit, by the thinnest of margins; the full recount must have felt like sitting in a dentist’s chair while a large syringe torments your every sense.

    As for the EU’s concerns about the UK’s basket cases:
    (Adapted – Centre for European Reform)
    1. The EU is adamant the UK cannot ‘cherry-pick’. A country outside the EU e.g. Norway, that wants to be in the single market, must meet the conditions of the European Economic Area.
    2. Angela Merkel and others see the British proposals as heading towards a Swiss-style model (which the EU doesn’t like). The Swiss have partial membership of the single market, but the EU’s ability to enforce its rules in the Swiss courts is curtailed.
    3. How do the 27 members of the EU, who have differing interests and economic strengths, forge a common view.
    4. There are concerns that the UK will find clever ways of gaining a competitive advantage over its EU partners by undermining the single market’s standards.
    5. Germany is concerned about the consequences of a deal that allow the UK to enjoy partial membership of the single market, encouraging others to seek a British-style deal on the same terms if the UK is successful post-Brexit.

    As for the fish, move over Michel Gove, no-one says it quite like Boris: “fish are friends not food.” Hmm. He later went on to say “leaving the union would allow Britain to set its own fishing quotas, rather than allowing Brussels to set the limits.” Not exactly; the EU rolls its collective eyes.

    Some ominous words from Rees-Mogg in Petersfield, January 25th 2018:
    “They [the British public] voted for hope and opportunity and politicians must now deliver it.

    “If we do not, if we are timid and cowering and terrified of the future, then our children and theirs will judge us in the balance and find us wanting.”

    “The UK’s approach to the EU talks has failed and must stop doing so”

    Perhaps May is feeling a bit like Bilbo Baggins, who once said:
    “I know I don’t look it but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin… sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Nigel Farage, in his usual combative mode, tweeted: “Trump superb at Davos. If only we had a leader that could inspire confidence.”
    tweeted: “Trump superb at Davos. If only we had a leader that could inspire confidence.”

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