Conservative and Labour Brexit Intrigue

  • 06 June 2018
  • Posted in: Management & Leadership, Planning & Development

Wednesday signalled a shift in approach to the Brexit policy of both major parliamentary parties.

According to officials working alongside senior members of Theresa May’s minority government, the prime minister is closer than ever to producing a framework for withdrawal from the European Union that bridges the gaps between her divided cabinet ministers.

In an interview with the BBC’s Today programme, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Sir Keir Starmer, outlined the Party’s stance on future inclusion in the European Economic Area (EEA) – it being that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) holds views that are too divergent to guarantee a whipped-vote on an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that would commit the government to keeping the UK in the EEA taking place next week – amounting to single market membership. However, Labour will be tabling amendments to the withdrawal bill, trade bill and customs bill with the stated intention that the UK should seek full access to the EU single market post-Brexit.

The Labour Party have been criticised for ‘fudging’ their Brexit stance to appeal to voters on either side of the remain/leave divide; a strategy labelled ‘constructive ambiguity’. However, one of the amendments to the withdrawal bill detailed by Keir Starmer, the ‘internal market’ is being hailed as the most constructive step Labour have taken towards a fleshed-out Brexit policy stance. Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, spoke about ‘full access’ and ‘shared institutions’ with the EU and the single market in his tour of the BBC broadcast studios on Wednesday morning; signifying the closest Labour have come to backing continued membership of the single market without explicitly saying the words. The Party’s reticence to commit to continued membership is for the most part, the result of:

  1. Backbenchers - and shadow cabinet members - with leave-backing constituencies making the case that the referendum result indicates voters want immigration control that is not compliant with free movement; one of the four freedoms implicit with single market membership.
  2. The Labour leadership believes that full membership would require acquiescence with frameworks such as the EU competition regime – which would hinder a future Labour government’s ability to enact manifesto pledges and intervene in economic issues.

Tabling the amendments are an example of the Labour leadership playing the game of politics – a pragmatic attempt to appease grassroot remainer Labour members by tabling amendments that won’t pass, given Tory rebels reluctance to back anything with Jeremy Corbyn’s name on it, but signals a softening in the party’s Brexit stance. At the same time, the leadership office surely appreciates that the optics of doing anything that works towards overturning Brexit is an electoral death wish.

Across the aisle, the Conservatives are apparently building a consensus amongst senior ministers as to what the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU should resemble – with 295 days (and counting) left to make a deal. The two big take-aways from speculation around SW1 is that the PM’s office have abandoned the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ ideology and that the final Brexit deal is becoming less like the Canada model favoured by hard-line Brexiteers (regulatory divergence from the EU), instead, the deal will likely reflect alignment closer to current EU regulation.

Divisions amongst cabinet over the biggest legislative upheaval in post-war British history are to be expected; though with two years passed since Britain voted to leave the bloc, astonishingly little progress has been made by the government in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal. The most significant step forward came in December, when the prime minister agreed an Irish border backstop that will keep the UK in a customs union in full alignment with EU regulation beyond 2021 if no other solution is agreed upon. At the time, Brexiteers were persuaded that ‘full alignment’ was just rhetoric used in order to maintain what little momentum negotiations had built - with the opportunity to revisit the specifics in due course. In reality, the PM had set the UK on course for regulatory alignment with the Continent right under the Brexiteer’s noses. Now, it would seem, the conflict amongst Brexiteers is do they grudgingly accept BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) and work to diverge from EU regulations after 2021 or up-the-ante now and continue the fight for a divergent relationship.

The truth that Brexiteers and remainers on both benches of the House must recognise is that, with the rumoured collapse of no-deal planning, a backstop in place that commits the UK to EU regulations without a seat at the decision-making table (think Hotel California – we can check out, but we can’t leave) and the Article 50 clock ticking; with every passing second, Brussels gains more leverage in a mess all of our own making.       

Breaking overnight David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, may be on the cusp of resigning over Theresa May’s customs backstop. Since last year’s general election result the Prime Minister has lost the equivalent of a cabinet minister every six weeks – if the head of DExEU is next, the Brexit timetable may find itself in a similar situation as the Northern Rail schedule.  

Writing for the ConservativeHome website, former MP for Wycombe and parliamentary private secretary to Davis, Paul Goodman, made a bold prediction that paints a picture that couldn’t be more divergent from the rumoured consensus around the Cabinet table:

“As today’s papers confirm, Brexit ministers and others have come to believe that the prime minister has reneged on safeguards given to them which from their point of view might render the current negotiating position recoverable… So what are they going to do about it? If they no longer have confidence in May – to cut to the chase – will they actually quit? This site’s reckoning is that resignation is most likely in this order among the most senior Brexiteers: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox. It should not be forgotten that their fellow Cabinet members Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Penny Mordaunt also backed leaving the EU.”

  • Brexit
  • central government
  • European Union
  • policy