Column / Brexit Briefing
The Brexit picture starts to emerge
By Benjamin Fox
After months of smokescreens and delaying tactics, a clearer picture of the government’s Brexit strategy is gradually emerging.
MPs backed the government’s timetable for launching Article 50 talks on Wednesday night (7 December) after two days of procedural manoeuvres.
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Under a compromise struck between the government and Labour, Theresa May and her team are committed to submitting a Brexit negotiating plan to MPs in the new year.
About 20 Conservative MPs, easily enough to overturn May’s slim majority, had threatened to vote with Labour until the government intervened.
While the government’s promise to end its self-imposed vow of silence marks a significant climbdown, the compromise brings significant tactical benefit for ministers. In return for accepting a Brexit blueprint, they have a mandate to instigate the Brexit negotiations.
Eighty-nine MPs, including 23 Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party en masse, refused to back the motion. Veteran pro-European Conservative Ken Clarke was the only Tory to vote against his government.
For their part, "hard Brexit" Tories who just want guarantees that Britain will leave the EU get a promise from the government that it will invoke Article 50 before the end of March.
In essence, it allows all sides to declare victory, although Keir Starmer, Labour’s recently appointed Brexit spokesman, can claim the most credit for bouncing ministers into a concession they would not otherwise have offered.
"We're moving in the right direction, which is that Parliament should have these debates and Parliament must trigger Article 50,” said Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a Remain campaigner. “The government need have no fear - we will vote to leave the EU because we have accepted the result of the referendum."
Brexit makes more political upsets
Wednesday’s vote offers some more flank to the Liberal Democrats, who are basing their short-term electoral strategy around making themselves the party of the 48 percent of Remain voters.
As last week’s shock win in a by-election in Richmond shows, tapping into the fears of Remain voters is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to take Labour votes.
Publishing a paper does not have to mean any substantive deviation from May’s promise not to give a "running commentary" on their negotiating strategy - the Brexit plan conceded by ministers can still be as much, or as little, detail as the government sees fit.
It is still a step towards greater transparency.
So far, a now not so secret agreement with Nissan in October, under which the government gave written assurances that the Japanese carmaker’s business will not suffer from Brexit or face tariffs, even if the UK is forced out of the EU’s customs area, is the only indication that the government has given of its priorities.
The timing, midway through the four-day Supreme Court appeal brought by the government against the ruling, that it must consult MPs before triggering Brexit, is also noteworthy.
Regardless of the eleven justices’ final ruling, Gina Miller’s challenge to Brexit by executive decree has emboldened MPs, even if the idea that Parliament could be bypassed in the process was always fanciful.
Hilary Benn, the Labour chairman of the Exiting the EU committee, told EUobserver last week that he “can’t see any circumstances that they trigger Article 50 without telling Parliament what the plan is.”
The press briefing by commission Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Tuesday underscored that the window for settling the terms of Brexit is very tight, his deadline of October 2018 taking Downing Street slightly by surprise.
Assuming no substantive movement can be made until after next year’s elections in France and Germany in May and September are settled, that leaves just over a year to agree on the divorce terms.
This will increase the pressure on Theresa May to seek some form of post-Brexit transitional arrangement, to mitigate the risk of Britain facing a "cliff-edge" between divorce and a new settlement, a move Barnier hinted that he was open to, commenting “you can’t do everything in 15 to 18 months.”
The week in Westminster and Brussels highlight the difficulty Theresa May faces in trying to keep control of the Brexit timetable.
The challenge to come is that once her letter triggering Article 50 is in the hands of European leaders, May will have very few cards left to play.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.