Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Taking back control at home, not from EU

  • Theresa May on election day. Her government’s main ambition is its immediate survival. (Photo: Reuters/Peter Nicholls)

A year after the British voters chose to leave the EU, "taking back control" from the bloc is firmly on the back-burner for a Conservative party that, on Monday (26 June), agreed to pay the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) £1 billion (€1.1bn) to prop it up in government.

The deal doesn’t give the DUP any ministers in government and, tellingly, appears to be a two-year pact. The extra investment in Northern Ireland’s roads, broadband and healthcare will be spent over the next two years.

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In return, the DUP is committed to supporting the government’s threadbare legislative programme (dominated by eight Brexit-related bills), all confidence votes and money bills.

Theoretically, the pact could last for a full five-year term, but in reality is about buying the Conservatives enough time to complete the Article 50 Brexit negotiations.

The shock decision by voters not to increase but to take away prime minister Theresa May’s majority, has destroyed the sense of bravado that permeated ministerial meetings in Whitehall.

Many senior Conservatives now admit, albeit privately, that the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal being agreed with the EU by spring 2019 is virtually none-existent. An ambitious plan for negotiating the UK’s EU exit almost certainly died on 9 June, the day after the general election.

At last week’s EU summit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters that he did not have a clear idea of the kind of Brexit May’s ministers were seeking. European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani had said the same in a BBC interview the day before.

It’s no surprise if EU leaders are confused. Britons are none the wiser themselves.

Fudging Brexit negotiations

May's government has no clear position on any of the key components in the Brexit talks.

Even on the seemingly simple task of agreeing on the rights of EU nationals in the UK, and their counterparts, there is confusion. May’s offer is less generous than a plan by her predecessor, David Cameron, to reassure EU nationals living in the UK that their status would not be affected.

"Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay. All his cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his home secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it," said George Osborne, who served as chancellor under Cameron.

The May government’s fragility, combined with discord between her leading ministers, makes a fudge the most likely outcome from the Article 50 talks.

International trade minister Liam Fox wants Britain out of the European Economic Area (EEA) and customs union.

His department’s remit is based on Brexit Britain negotiating a series of third country trade deals, and his officials view the Turkey model of being outside the single market but inside the customs union as the worst of both worlds.

Fox’s position was the dominant one in Whitehall pre-election, but it is now being increasingly marginalised.

Current Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who was widely expected to be sacked if May had secured a majority, has been the most emboldened by the election result.

Before the vote, Hammond had been the lone ministerial voice urging Britain to remain in either the single market or customs union. He is now mooting the prospect of a four-year transitional period, during which Britain remains part of the single market and seeks to negotiate a trade agreement.

"When you buy a house you don’t necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it," he has said.

Immediate survival

In the short-term, a transitional deal is pragmatic. Talks on a post-Brexit trade deal are unlikely to begin before late-2018, and May has very little leverage to demand a speedier timetable.

Four years is also a more realistic time-scale for brokering a trade and customs arrangement. But a lengthy transition period is still kicking the can down a road full of potholes. This would take us up to 2023, by which time there will have been at least one change of UK government (and probably more). EU officials are hardly keen on having to negotiate with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon's decision on Tuesday (27 June) to shelve plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence until at least late-2018 is one crumb of comfort for the British government.

The election of 12 new Scottish Tory MPs, led by Ruth Davidson, who herself is now touted as a possible contender to replace May, made Scotland the only significant success story for the Conservatives on 8 June.

Even so, it underscores the fact that, for the time being, "taking back control" only applies to the UK’s constituent parts. The May government’s main ambition is its immediate survival.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a freelance writer.

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