Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexiteers still hunting for a strategy

  • Clarity on the government’s negotiating strategy will have to emerge sooner rather than later. (Photo: Reuters)

Brexit minister David Davis made his triumphant return to Parliament on Monday (5 September), almost 20 years after his previous government job as, ironically enough, John Major’s minister for Europe.

Back then, Davis was the bruiser who had helped force the Maastricht treaty through the UK parliament. Now he’s the man charged with leaving the club.

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Anyone expecting the government to have devised the semblance of a plan for negotiating its exit from the EU was disappointed. Davis’ 15-minute speech was largely content free.

To Davis, Brexit “must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe – but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade in goods and services”. So far so vague.

Meanwhile, the Labour party finally appears to have a post-Brexit position.

Leadership candidate Owen Smith, who has promised to campaign for a second "in/out" referendum on the terms of Brexit, will almost certainly be comfortably defeated by Jeremy Corbyn at the end of September.

But Corbyn’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry has taken a similar stance to Smith, demanding a parliament vote before the triggering of Article 50, the EU clause on the exit process.

After 10 weeks of post-referendum reflection the only thing that either government ministers or Joe Public can agree on is that "Brexit means Brexit". For the country that produced Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and the Beatles, this hardly appears to be an auspicious achievement.

Given the ugliness of the referendum campaign, and the mendacious claims made on both sides, it is noteworthy. On the eve of the poll, Nigel Farage warned that the result would be rigged to ensure a Remain victory. A sizeable portion of eurosceptics vowed not to let a narrow defeat end the matter.

There is still a lingering viewpoint in Brussels that Article 50 will remain unused, or the reality of terms offered by the EU-27 will be so unpalatable that Britain will never leave the EU.

That is certainly not the view among Remain supporters in Westminster.

Focus on single market

Labour former ministers lined up to express their sadness at the result, but were unequivocal in accepting that the will of the 52 percent is final.

“I campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, but I accept the outcome of the referendum," former Europe spokeswoman Emma Reynolds told MPs on Monday.

“It would be a good idea to try to find some way of maintaining a form of co-operation on foreign policy after we leave the European Union, because even after exit we will still very much be part of Europe.”

Several corridors away in Westminster Hall, MPs debated the petition signed by over 4 million Britons in the week following the referendum, most of them surely Remain supporters, demanding a rerun.

Believe it or not, there are, if not millions, certainly thousands of Brits who are still in post-referendum mourning. But that battle is almost certainly over. Although around 400 of the 650 MPs backed a Remain vote, most accept that the June result must be respected.

The next pitched battle for Remainers will be retaining British membership of the single market. The Stronger In group, which ran the official Remain campaign, has now morphed into Open Britain, with single market membership the centrepiece.

Direction of travel

If Davis, who was flanked in parliament by fellow Brexiteers foreign secretary Boris Johnson and trade minister Liam Fox, has his way then it seems almost certain that Britain will leave the single market.

“This government is looking at every option, but the simple truth is that if a requirement of membership is giving up control of our borders I think that makes it very improbable,” he said

It took less than 24 hours for prime minister Theresa May to disown this position. “He is setting out his opinion. A policy tends to be a direction of travel, saying something is probable or improbable is not policy,” May’s spokeswoman told reporters on Tuesday (6 September) when asked if Davis was expressing a government policy.

The clarity on the government’s negotiating strategy will have to emerge sooner rather than later. But the train only has one destination.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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