Government marches on … but where’s the plan?
The Government signaled its determination to press on with the Brexit process, despite the High Court setback earlier in the month. Rumours from the Palace of Westminster suggest ministers are preparing a three-line whip for a vote on a short Bill early in 2017. While the preparation of legislation suggests ministers are sanguine about their changes in the Supreme Court, the parliamentary vote would enable Theresa May to stick to her March timetable – while the brevity of the Bill will limit opportunities for resolute Remainers.
But while the Government has been laying the legislative groundwork, Theresa May has again been challenged on her plan for negotiation with EU Member States. The Prime Minister stood resolute against Jeremy Corbyn’s demands for information during PMQs this week, while a leaked memo from a member of staff at Deloitte questioned the existence of a comprehensive plan. Meanwhile serving and former senior civil servants have lined up to suggest it’s a case of ‘Mission Impossible’ for Whitehall, which is undertaking more than 500 projects to prepare for Brexit and could need as many as 30,000 staff additions to complete the task.
Paying the Brexit cheque
When Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond gives his Autumn Statement next week, he’s expected to shed some light on the impact of Brexit on the public purse. And, according to report this week, that could be extreme. The Financial Times suggested the Chancellor will reveal “the largest deterioration in British public finances since 2011,” while official forecasts indicate the cost of Brexit could hit £100bn within five years.
The predictions of slower growth and lower investment will likely cause Remainers to claim their economic predictions are now being realised, while independent forecasts have anticipated weaker growth until 2020. With the Government facing the prospect of extra borrowing to compensate for a loss in tax revenues, ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ is facing a battle to deliver Brexit without redressing the deficit reduction of recent years.
Labour stays confused
Jeremy Corbyn had a better than average PMQs this week, but Labour appeared mired in confusion as to its position on Brexit. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed it was “an enormous opportunity”. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott suggested there should be no cap on immigration. Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis promised the Party would be the “champion of business” and outlined immigration proposals that bore little resemblance to Mrs Abbott’s comments.
Mr Lewis’ proposals did bear similarity to calls of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, who suggested businesses bringing in foreign staff should be required to negotiate with a trade union over pay, conditions and to avoid undercutting local workers. Interestingly, Mr McCluskey also claimed the single market to be important. But the past week will have done little to convince that the Opposition has a coherent position to challenge a government yet to set out the Brexit masterplan.
Wanting our cake and eating it
In perhaps the most unsurprising story of the week, new research from NatCen suggested the British public wants to have its cake and eat it – with 90 percent of respondents wanting to stay in the single market, while more than 70 percent wanted limits on EU migration.
While the findings are hardly earth-shattering, they should provide some food for thought in Downing Street as to what the public might view as a successful Brexit. But the big question is whether the big beasts of the EU will give any ground on free movement. Angela Merkel has indicated the single market’s four freedoms can’t be separated. Meanwhile, her finance minister – Wolfgang Schäuble – has suggested the EU will continue to demand billions in previously made pledges from the UK. Facing what appear to be hardened views, Mrs May faces a struggle to get British public their cake, and the agreement they can eat it.
Losing friends and alienating people
A senior political correspondent wondered aloud this week when the real Boris Johnson would stand up. Well, the Foreign Secretary clearly heard the question, if his rather tense discussion with Italian Economic Minister Carlo Calenda was anything to go by.
Clashing over access to the single market and freedom of movement, Mr Johnson is alleged to have insisted that keeping the UK out of the market (by not limiting freedom of movement) would mean Italy sold less prosecco. In one of the more acerbic encounters of the week, Mr Calenda replied that Britain would then end up selling less fish and chips, but to 27 countries – adding in commentary to journalists that the discussion had been “quite insulting.”
Not quite done for the week, Mr Johnson also suggested the UK could leave the customs union. His actions were quickly criticised within the UK media (The Guardian contributing an excoriating editorial), but raises the question of how such an approach will affect the UK’s negotiations – and how long Mrs May’s patience with a senior member of her ‘Three Brexiteers’ will last.