As the clock ticks towards Brexit Day we’re in danger on multiple fronts

The prime minister intends to spell out what she wants from a final deal with the EU in her speech today. And as is now traditional, we’d like to offer our help.

Clearly, a real challenge that Theresa May faces is the need to convince at least three different audiences. First, she has to say something that her cabinet might agree with. Or at least, something that does not incite any of them to resign.

What emerged from the away day in Chequers last week was a deal that allowed each side to claim victory.

On the one hand “ambitious managed divergence” – which describes the state of the government as much as a strategy for dealing with the EU – allows Brexiters red in tooth and claw to applaud the restoration of sovereignty.

Equally, Philip Hammond and company can cling to the possibility of continued alignment with EU law. The temptation must be strong to maintain the obfuscation.

Then there is the parliamentary party. Here, the stakes are different, if only because it would take only a few defections to inflict a humiliating defeat on the government. Here again, ambiguity might do the trick. Who the hell knows, for instance, what the relationship is between a customs arrangement and a customs union?

Of course, there are other audiences too. It would obviously be great if she could rally public opinion to her cause and unify the different nations of the UK. But let’s stick to the real world for now.

Up until now, the missing side of the triangle was anything that might be achievable given the position of the EU.

The Lancaster House and Florence speeches spawned disbelief in Brussels. And nothing that has been said subsequently about the UK government’s approach to the negotiations has undone this.

This is not to say that the UK could not achieve a deal between the Canada and Norway options that the EU is currently offering.

We differ slightly from John Springford in believing that divisions between member states might appear when trade is at stake. One of us was struck recently, on a trip to several ports, by the anger expressed at European governments for their inflexibility during the Brexit negotiations.

But simply repeating the phrase “ambitious managed divergence” – that is, the UK can choose the rules it likes, and change the ones it doesn’t, at its own future pleasure – will be received, not just in Brussels but throughout Europe, as “cakeism” squared.

Behind the rhetoric, the increasing weight of evidence and opinion, both in cabinet and the country, is that the sheer force of economic logic means we will remain tightly bound to the EU for the foreseeable future, in economic and regulatory terms.

But achieving that will certainly entail blurring, and perhaps erasing entirely, some, if not necessarily all, of Theresa May’s famous red lines. It will also mean confronting, finally, the minority within her party who prize ideological purity over a workable Brexit.

In other words, a John Major-style “back me or sack me” game of chicken, presenting moderate Conservatives, in effect, with a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg.

Doing so would reboot the negotiations and, just maybe, generate some much-needed goodwill and sense of urgency. But, if as seems more likely, the prime minister sticks to obfuscation and ambiguity – which, to be fair, have kept her in office, if not exactly in power, since her disastrous snap election – then events may overtake her.

Because, while the “future relationship” is crucial in the long-term, the immediate crisis is the Withdrawal Agreement and with it the “transition period”.

While the government has given up the laughable pretence that this is an ‘implementation period’ or indeed anything other than a de facto extension of the status quo, it has nevertheless dropped the ball here.

After Herculean efforts, various forms of words were found in December to come to a political agreement.

But lots of loose ends, most of all the Irish border, but there are plenty of others, were left untied. We’ve had three months to come up with detailed answers. But, as Mr Barnier said with palpable irritation earlier this week, UK input has been minimal.

Unsurprising, then, that the EU has simply got on with translating the deal into legal text; and equally unsurprising that the UK government is shocked – shocked! – that it now doesn’t like what it’s being asked to sign.

And now we’re up against it. The government claimed in December that it had successfully concluded a Phase 1 deal that would both guarantee business a transition period and allow us to move on to trade talks. As is now apparent, neither claim was true.

We are in danger on multiple fronts. First, we are allowing the tail (the Irish border, combined with the government’s dependence on the DUP) to wag the entire Brexit dog, to the point where the process may break down.

Second, we risk locking ourselves into a transitional period – just 22 months – that is far, far too short. Conversations in Brussels reveal that British negotiators have developed the habit of asking their EU interlocutors why they think 18 months will be enough. But, of course, they are not (yet) allowed to ask for longer themselves.

And finally, the clock is ticking. Not so much the EU’s October deadline, which is still some way off.

But the increasing nervousness among British and international businesses that the government’s dithering risks leaving them – and the rest of us – in the lurch, with no certainty about what will happen on Brexit Day. Confidence is slipping away slowly. It might not take much longer to become a flood.

By Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in Times Red Box.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

View all analyses

Sign up to our newsletter





View our latest newsletter