The big news of the week has been the departure of Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Seen as one of Theresa May’s closest allies, Rudd’s departure is a significant blow for the Prime Minister following the departure of other former Cabinet ministers such as Sir Michael Fallon, and the loss of close advisors including Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill since the General Election
In terms of Brexit, Rudd often described herself even to fellow Conservatives as ‘a liberal’ and her pro-Customs Union stance has not been immediately replicated by her successor Sajid Javid, who in ‘Brexit Cabinet’ this week was the deciding vote in rejecting the Prime Minister’s preferred option of a ‘customs partnership’ post Brexit.
Whilst Rudd’s support for the ‘Remain’ campaign was inevitable, Javid’s came as a shock to many, with some describing him as the most reluctant Remainer in town. As a lifelong Eurosceptic and Thatcherite, the new Home Secretary has previously made his views on a customs union clear, stating ‘British people gave politicians clear instructions’ and that ‘Britain must leave [the] Customs Union, describing it as ‘an intrinsic part of the EU’. Not only has the PM lost a Cabinet Member seen very much as one of her chief deputies following last year’s election, Mrs May could also have seen the delicate Leave-Remain balance within the Cabinet shift the way of the former.
Following a series of votes in the House of Lords as it considers the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, a petition has been launched to abolish the second chamber which has already picked up hundreds of thousands of signatures. Many critics have highlighted that the unelected chamber is interfering in the implementation of a public referendum result and their dissatisfaction with ‘unelected and unaccountable individuals hold[ing] a disproportionate amount of influence and power.’
Interestingly, the petition seems to echo the result of the referendum with more support for it in Leave voting areas. Conservative MP Daniel Kawcyznski indicated that he too might support a constitutional change, stating ‘the time may be coming where we need to have a national debate on an elected senate’. A poll by The Daily Express rather unsurprisingly showed a whopping 96% back abolition of the Upper Chamber.
The Lords’ voting on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will inevitably prompt further questions over the role of the unelected Upper Chamber, but while restructure has been mooted for years, don’t expect any immediate changes. The Lords’ position on issues like the customs union do, however, underline the challenges the Government will have in confirming and potentially ratifying an eventual Brexit deal.
Sixty to Sink
News emerged this week that Theresa May might be willing to implement some formal customs arrangements between Britain and the EU in a move which was said to ‘enrage’ Brexiteers and risk the ‘collapse’ of her Government. Sources from both DExEU Secretary, David Davis, and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, have indicated that such a move would make them ‘consider their positions.’
The 60-strong European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, wrote to the Prime Minister setting out their detailed account of why they believe a Customs Union is ‘undeliverable’ and urging the PM to ditch the ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ model. Ironically, EU negotiators also determined they viewed the Prime Minister’s preference of a customs partnership to be unworkable, unusually putting them in agreement with Mr Rees-Mogg et al.
The intervention is a stark reminder of the simmering contention over Brexit within the Conservative ranks. Without a Parliamentary majority, losing support of 60 MPs would come as a huge blow to the Prime Minister, as would further resignations within Cabinet. However, the question remains how Mrs May will balance the expectations of Brexiteers within the Tory Party with outspoken Remainers, given the lack of a majority makes it difficult and potentially perilous to offend either.
Barnier Kisses the Blarney Stone
EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier visited Ireland for discussions on Brexit, with the issue of the Irish border remaining one of – if not the – most difficult and contentious of the negotiations process.
Despite saying “we have no intention of questioning the UK’s constitutional order,” Barnier raised the border issue, with criticism of what he described as the UK’s ‘red lines.’ His words were echoed by Irish Taioseach Leo Varadkar, who noted that Ireland is seeking “real and substantial progress” on the border issue.
Brexit Secretary, David Davis, said that he agreed that the UK and EU should ‘move quickly’ to establish ‘a workable backstop’, but highlighted that both sides have rejected each other’s standpoint thus far. Mr Barnier’s comments will hardly have been welcomed by DExEU, but Ireland remains a significant barrier to be addressed ahead of Brexit day in 2019.
Whilst UK Ministers has been able to reach an agreement with the Welsh Labour Government on post-Brexit dealings, hailed by Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington as “a significant achievement that will provide legal certainty,” negotiations with the Scottish Government, led by the SNP, have not yet born fruit.
Debate is ongoing as to how powers currently exercised in Brussels will be administered post-Brexit. Both sides insist that a deal is still possible and the SNP concede that some powers which are currently kept in line with EU-wide regulations should transfer to UK-wide frameworks. However, there is still dispute on how these should be mechanised and Scottish Ministers have threatened not to put forward the EU Withdrawal Bill for a contest vote at Holyrood until this matter is settled.
Time is of the essence, as this has to be completed before the Bill has its final reading in the House of Lords – currently earmarked for 16th May, creating another headache the Prime Minister could do without during a difficult week.