Britain’s Brexit paralysis: New PM could be the only solution
Denis Staunton: Johnson, Hammond and Davis all potential successors to Theresa May
Brexit tussle: Michel Barnier won this week’s war of words with Boris Johnson. Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg
If Brexit were a war of words, or bon mots, the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, would have won this week’s battle with his put-down of the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Playing to the gallery in the House of Commons, Johnson had suggested that Brussels could “go whistle” if it expected the United Kingdom to pay an “extortionate” exit bill. Asked about the remark, Barnier said he heard no whistling, only the sound of the clock ticking.
With 20 months to go before the UK leaves the EU, the shape of Brexit is harder to predict than ever, as last month’s general election has turned British politics upside down. The UK’s formal position remains that set out by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech in January, which involves leaving the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The collapse of May’s authority, divisions in her cabinet, a changed parliamentary arithmetic and shifts in public opinion have strained this negotiating position, as voices urging a softer approach grow louder. But if there is no parliamentary majority for the prime minister’s vision of Brexit, her government’s weakness has left it paralysed and incapable, for now, of changing course.
As Brexit draws closer, British business is growing more anxious about the cost of leaving the single market and the customs union. Sectors such as the automotive industry, which operate complex supply chains stretching across the EU, have warned the government that leaving the customs union could be disastrous. And financial-services companies in the City of London are well advanced in their plans to move some operations out of the UK capital to Frankfurt, Brussels, Luxembourg, Dublin and elsewhere.
Business leaders are pressing for a long transitional period during which most current arrangements would remain in place. One option, known as “Norway for a while”, would see the UK join the European Economic Area for a few years after Brexit, to ease the disruption of leaving the EU.
Some ministers, led by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, are sympathetic to these proposals and to the argument that for a number of years after the United Kingdom leaves the EU it should remain in the customs union. Other ministers fear that anything short of a hard Brexit would be perceived by Leave voters as a betrayal of the vote to quit the European Union. Some officials in Brussels are sceptical, too, fearing that such a transitional arrangement could become semi-permanent.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, warned that the Brexit project could fall apart ‘at the first tap’ like a chocolate orange
Disagreements within the British government have created a confused approach to Brexit, and Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, warned this week that the project could fall apart “at the first tap” like a chocolate orange. “It needs to be coming through as uniform, a little bit more like a cricket ball,” he said.
The divisions in government are reflected and magnified in parliament, which this week saw the publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill. The Bill repeals the European Communities Act 1972, which brought the UK into the Common Market, turns nearly all existing EU law into UK law, and gives ministers powers to amend, repeal and replace these “retained EU laws”.
The new powers for ministers, granted under “Henry VIII clauses”, are sweeping, with weak parliamentary scrutiny, and will face resistance in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Bill has also angered the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, because it will repatriate powers from Brussels over devolved policy areas to Westminster before deciding whether to devolve them to Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. The Scottish and Welsh governments have threatened to withhold legislative consent, but they cannot block the legislation.
Opinion polls have shown a slight shift of support away from Brexit and towards the idea of a second referendum. Surveys also suggest that voters reject May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and that their opposition to free movement of people is nuanced, and focused on demand for public services.
The shift in parliament is clearer still, and was reflected this week in the success of anti-Brexit candidates in elections to chair cross-party committees. And despite the British Labour Party’s ambiguous policy on Brexit during the general election, Jeremy Corbyn is likely to seize every opportunity to embarrass the government with amendments to Brexit-related legislation.
May remains prime minister only because most Conservative MPs believe it is preferable to keep her in office until the article 50 negotiations are completed
May remains prime minister after the election only because most Conservative MPs now believe it is preferable to keep her in office until the article 50 negotiations are completed, in March 2019. While she remains, however, she lacks the authority to move from her Lancaster House position on Brexit.
Potential successors will meanwhile compete for the support of diehard Brexiteers on the backbenches, as Johnson may have been doing with his “go whistle” comment this week. Remainers would like to see Hammond succeed May, hoping that he would initiate a sharp turn in the UK’s approach to the negotiations, prioritising the economy over immigration.
Others argue that only a true believer in Brexit such as David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, would be able to persuade enough backbenchers to accept the necessary compromises on the way to a less destructive Brexit.
Either way, it is becoming increasingly clear that an early change of leadership offers the best hope of bringing coherence to the UK’s negotiating strategy, as well as the flexibility it needs to succeed.