Hammond’s elephant in the room
Brexit was conspicuously absent this week from Phillip Hammond’s first Spring Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Bolstered by better than expected growth rates and forecasts, as well as lower levels of borrowing, the Chancellor seemed optimistic and upbeat, albeit with a note of caution. Brexit was only mentioned briefly in the opening of the accompanying Budget document, which noted that “As the UK begins the formal process of exiting the European Union, the Spring Budget puts economic stability first”.
Was this to be expected? Quite so. The whole Brexit process remains one of the great “known unknowns” and any attempt at this point to chart policy in an unchartered territory is an impossible task. Of course, this could mean that this week’s policy announcements and forecasts could prove accurate or be completely derailed, based on developments over the next year. It has historically been one of the “tragedies” of policy making to have to make significant decisions while lacking all the necessary information.
United in division
On 9 – 10 March, EU leaders are coming together for a European Council Summit to, among other things, elect the next President of the European Council. Sitting President Donald Tusk has broad support for a second mandate, however his own country Poland rejected the idea and presented an alternative candidate, Member of European Parliament Jacek Saryusz-Wolski. Hungary had announced it supported the Polish right-wing governing Law and Justice Party in its attempt to oust the former Polish Prime Minister from his job – much to the dismay of many other EU leaders and the European People’s Party – however the needed majority of Member States still backed Mr Tusk, allowing him to continue in his current post.
This election showed that at the Summit, at which EU leaders sought unity ahead of Brexit negotiations, Member States were once again very divided. This division, mainly between Western old Member States and Eastern newer members, will not have gone unnoticed by Theresa May. As she is set to trigger Article 50 at any moment, she still has the right to vote on such matters, as long as the UK is a member of the EU. Will she, in similar situations in future Council meetings, side with important allies like Poland to earn their favour during the Brexit negotiations, or maintain neutrality to avoid alienating herself from other Member States? Either way, she will be keeping a very close eye on what drives any differences between Member States.
The meaning of “meaningful”
Mrs May watched this week as the House of Lords adopted by 366 votes to 268 an amendment calling for a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final withdrawal deal. The amendment would see both houses vote on the Brexit terms separately, as opposed to simply voting yes or no on the whole deal. In response, the Government has accused Peers of “frustrating” the process of triggering Article 50 and emphasised that the UK will leave with or without a deal. “That is the choice on offer”, Brexit Minister Lord Bridges said.
But what would this “meaningful” vote really mean? If the Government refuses to return to the negotiating table, Parliament will have to choose between accepting the final deal it gets or leave the EU without a deal, meaning trade relations between the two blocs will be subject to World Trade Organisation rules, something everyone wants to avoid. If Parliament is able to reject the Government’s deal, the EU will have the upper hand in the negotiations as it can use the divisions between Government and Parliament and Brexiteers and Remainers, to its advantage. Both scenarios are not ideal, to say the least. The Government, however, insists it will not have to consider these options, as the amendments will now be sent back to the House of Commons, which is expected to reverse them.
Going to the polls?
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, former Conservative Party leader and former Foreign Secretary Lord William Hague urged Theresa May to call for an early General Election to secure a decisive majority in Parliament and carry on with Brexit with a renewed, stronger majority. Attractive as that option may seem, especially given the beleaguered Opposition that could well guarantee an increased majority for Theresa May, the Government might be better served by continuing its work and going to the polls as planned in 2020, capitalising on the Labour Party’s current difficulties. Despite the Government’s slim majority, Labour has not yet posed any major threat to the Brexit process and, if anything, adopted a position in favour of leaving the EU. Why, then, not let Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership linger on and secure at least another five years of Conservative Government? Not to mention of course the obvious fact that a General Election will likely divert much needed attention and resources from the business of getting on with Brexit.
Indryref yet again – or maybe not
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave the strongest indication yet that autumn 2018 would be the “common sense” time to have a second referendum on Scotland’s independence. The First Minister seemed to indicate a preference for the window of when the outline of the UK’s deal with the EU becomes clear and the UK actually exits the bloc.
Polling shows that, if an independence referendum was held today, the margin in favour of remaining in the UK would probably be even higher than last time. However, public opinion is a volatile thing and the Scottish National Party (SNP) is counting on the true effects of Brexit starting to manifest themselves by autumn 2018, perhaps delivering a swing in attitude and, more crucially, votes.
For more information about Brexit, the negotiation process, parties involved, and its impact, please visit Project Brexit.