Plus ça change: Brexit still appears to just mean Brexit, nothing more

Written by Tom Freeman on 28 September 2017 in Inside Politics

Familiar posturing belies a paucity of progress on Brexit

Brexit questions - istock

A divided Conservative Party manoeuvres around a Prime Minister who voted ‘Remain’ yet pursues a hard Brexit. A divided Labour Party cannot articulate its position on the single market. And a divided country is misrepresented in discussions with international neighbours.

This was the position a year ago, before Article 50 was triggered and Britain entered formal negotiations to leave the European Union. And despite the progress of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill through the House of Commons and a supposedly landmark speech in Florence by Theresa May in which she changed her tone from threatening to conciliatory, the scene remains startlingly similar.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And in Britain, Brexit still just means Brexit – an obtuse hypocorism, still without substance some 15 months since the country voted for it.
Like her predecessor David Cameron, May sought to finally put to rest the issue which divides the Conservative Party more than anything else: Europe. 


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And recent weeks have shown that, like Cameron, she has failed.

The challenge, as it was when she first took the job, is to unite the party or lose it.

But while her chief negotiator, David Davis, appears at summits with EU officials without a single sheet of notes, back home, even the rest of her cabinet cannot agree what those notes should have been. 

Chancellor Philip Hammond has advocated a ‘soft Brexit’ to bring the UK into an arrangement similar to Switzerland, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has made a ham-fisted attempt to hide his ambition for the top job for years, hinted he could quit if May adopted such an approach.

It was clearly timed to pre-empt Theresa May’s big Brexit speech and the party conference, but he later insisted the cabinet is “a nest of singing birds”.

But those birds are singing an angry song, sometimes at each other. International trade secretary Liam Fox has said the UK is being “blackmailed” by the EU.

As former foreign secretary William Hague wrote in The Telegraph: “It is now 15 months since the referendum, and high time that all members of the Government were able to express themselves on this subject in the same way as each other, putting forward the same points, as part of an agreed plan.”

The line could equally be applied to the parliamentary Labour Party. 

Labour has moved to support full participation in the single market and customs union, but the language still echoes the meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra. 

Jeremy Corbyn finds himself between those arguing for a softening of the party’s stance and those protecting their seats. 

In both parties, MPs representing Brexit-voting constituencies are nervous that any sense of softening of Britain’s stance will go down like 99 lead balloons, while committed Remainers point to the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to stay in Europe and are watching in horror.

The devolved governments, meanwhile, published amendments to the UK legislation which repatriates all EU laws to Westminster. 

In a joint letter to May, first ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones said: “We hope they will be received in the way they are intended – as a constructive contribution by the devolved administrations, which would enable progress to be made among the governments in a way which respects the hard-won devolution settlements of the UK.”

An agreement seemed unlikely. But if the Scottish or Welsh governments do refuse legislative consent it will be unprecedented, and the divisions within the two main parties or among the electorate will again be upstaged by the division across Britain.

And for all the posturing and manoeuvres since the snap election in which May threw away her majority, the opinion polls have the Conservatives and Labour still neck and neck across the UK.

Attitudes towards Brexit, too, have shifted little since last year’s referendum. The country is still split, and with only the Liberal Democrats and the SNP speaking for the 48 per cent who voted Remain, few politicians are discussing the real issue which brought the Leave campaigners a 52 per cent victory: immigration.

And while the UK resembles a band of bald men fighting over a Brexit comb, our European neighbours look on with bemusement.

It is thought many European politicians are still struggling to understand why Britain voted to leave the EU in the first place. 

Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell last week told the Finance and Constitution Committee that Brexit remained “chaotic and unnecessary”, and for anyone looking at the UK from outside, the words might resonate.

Phil Hogan, the European agriculture commissioner, reacted with surprise to Johnson’s interventions, saying the British foreign secretary was “completely out the loop”.

“He certainly has made very strange statements that are completely contradictory, and completely at odds with his own government’s position as well as the possibility of being reasonable with the EU in finalising a deal.”

But those talks themselves had reached an impasse by that point, over protecting the rights of EU citizens, solving the question of the Northern Ireland border and settlement of the ‘divorce’ bill.

The European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been openly frustrated by the conflicting messages coming from UK ministers.

Speaking after the last round of talks, which concluded with UK position papers referring to interim use of the single market after Brexit, he said: “Why do the Government publish a withdrawal bill that eliminates completely the umpire of the single market – the European Court of Justice – on Brexit day? You cannot say, ‘I want to play in your game, but I don’t respect the umpire’. 

“If we want to stay in the customs union, why does somebody not switch off Dr Fox? 

“There is an inconsistency inside the government. We need them to come forward with a clear, achievable objective and then with precise negotiating proposals which would get us towards that objective. They need to avoid actions and speeches that are inconsistent with it.”

And it is not just politicians reacting with shock to the lack of clarity on what the future holds. A number of financial services companies are moving their European headquarters to Dublin or elsewhere in Europe.

These include US companies Chubb and AIG as well as XL Group, one of Lloyd’s of London’s largest insurance syndicates.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revised its growth forecasts for the UK for 2018 down to one per cent, which would see Britain drop to the bottom of the G7 economies, below even Italy, which is in the grip of a banking crisis.

“Brexit will represent a serious shock,” said OECD chief economist Catherine Mann.

In Scotland, the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde said the negotiations themselves remain the “greatest cloud on the immediate horizon” when it comes to the economy.
The think tank’s report was particularly scathing about the prospect of walking away from the negotiations without a deal, something apparently touted by Johnson but also threatened by May during the election campaign.

“‘No deal’ would clearly not be in the interests of either the UK or the EU,” the paper said.

“The potential risks from such a ‘cliff-edge’ scenario, with companies finding themselves outside the single market and customs union, would be severe indeed.”

The report added: “Whilst a detailed agreement will not be reached until the end of the process, the longer we wait for evidence that serious progress is being made, the greater the likelihood that companies and investors will start to plan for the worst.”

Forebodings of doom are familiar territory for people in Scotland, however, who have been hearing such warnings since the lead-up to the independence referendum of 2014. 

The three-year anniversary of the ‘No’ vote was marked with grieving or gloating by entrenched supporters, but the polls show that like Brexit, little has changed in the interim. At the time of writing, Survation put support for independence at 46 per cent with support for remaining in the UK at 54 per cent.

What goes around, comes around.  

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