The Committee Man
David Davis made his first appearance before the Commons Brexit (super) Select Committee this week. For a senior Minister from the Government who said it would not be giving a running commentary on Brexit, Mr Davis gave an excellent impression of a man giving a running commentary on Brexit. Partly, of course, because it is harder to avoid questions from Select Committee members but also because Mr Davis has always seemed more expansive on Brexit than many of his colleagues. Perhaps that’s why he’s getting surprisingly good reviews from friendly and not-so-friendly MPs from within Government and outside.
And yet, the Secretary of State hardly told us anything earth-shatteringly new. The Government will publish a ‘Brexit plan’ in February at the earliest (and there’s not much news on what will be in this plan). Some sort of transitional agreements could be possible, depending on the type of deal. Article 50 could be revoked once started, but it was not likely. Mr Davis would like to get all the tricky negotiations on Britain’s exit done within 18 months.
So, in short, the Government will publish a plan later, is not ruling anything in or out and would like to get everything done and dusted quickly. But the Government’s reticence on these matters is not just because it is inherently secretive – though it is – but also because it knows it doesn’t really matter what plan it is. To adapt the old adage about military planning, most plans fall apart on first contact with the other side.
The Inevitable Leaks
An alternative argument – or an addition to it – is that the Government doesn’t really know what to do about Brexit. This argument gained strength this week thanks to some leaks to Sam Coates, deputy political editor of The Times (whose star columnist is, totally uncoincidentally, the well-connected but underemployed Michael Gove). Mr Coates obtained details of the Cabinet’s own European Union Exit and Trade Committee, which has twelve permanent members, meets every fortnight and is chaired by the Prime Minister.
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, one “senior Government figure” told Mr Coates, is “the only one who makes sense”. Boris Johnson doesn’t say much and, when he does he undermines his own position e.g. recommending the Committee read a paper that they’d already discussed a month before. The overwhelming impression is of senior Ministers only starting to realise how difficult the whole situation is going to be, except for committed Brexiteers, such as Andrea Leadsom, who are frustrated when the practical problems of Brexit are pointed out.
As a final note, this story – clearly from an incredibly well-informed source – comes not long after a stern message from the head civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to stop the leaks on pain of dismissal. If anything, the Government has got even more porous since then.
Gimme three steps
European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier has won broad agreement on a three steps divorce plan, which would involve withdrawal, transition and then a “new relationship” between the UK and the EU. What this transition period will look like (possibly a status quo, but one must not put limits to EU leaders’ creativity), and how much the UK will be expected to contribute towards the EU budget before it leaves (a major issue in the EU referendum campaign), was not disclosed.
Martin Schulz, outgoing president of the European Parliament, said this approach should ensure a smooth departure of Britain from the rest of the bloc and “a rapid conclusion of the withdrawal agreement”. Schultz, who will leave the European Parliament to run for German elections, also encouraged his colleagues not to be led by emotions and what he recognised to be an “emotional affair”.
The European Parliament fought hard to secure their seat at the Brexit negotiating table, with MEPs threatening to negotiate directly with the UK and push for the “hardest possible Brexit” if they are not consulted. Emotional much?
Bye, Bye, bankers
Latest estimates from a top banker seem to point at a loss of 15 per cent of banking jobs as a result of Brexit. This amounts to 20,000 to 30,000 people, which may not seem too much compared to total employment in the financial sector in the City. After all, the government wants to make Britain a “country that works for all”, and is not keen to be seen as protecting big banking jobs.
In a debate dominated by uncertainty and vague statements, and precious little else – more facts and figures on the actual impact of Brexit are needed.
What these estimates show, is that banks are planning ahead to make sure that, should a “hard Brexit” happen, they are ready to leave London in two years’ time. It also shows how important is for government to put an end to uncertainty to allow companies to plan their future – in or outside Britain.
Finally, the most awkward ten seconds this week was the video of Theresa May standing on her own at the European Council meeting in Brussels whilst other EU leaders greeted each other warmly – and deliberately avoided the Prime Minister. However, we shouldn’t over-interpret things from a few seconds ; Mrs May was later pictured deep in conversation with her EU colleagues. But it was a reminder of two things: that the UK is more isolated than ever, and that EU leaders can be as petty and bloody-minded as any Brexiteer from the UK. Ideally both sides in what will be complicated divorce would behave like grownups. Don’t bet on it though.