Expert View

The government is in chaos over Brexit

by David Hannay | 07.07.2017

Anyone who is unaware of the extent of the government’s discombobulation over its Brexit policy – strategy is far too grand a word – has not been paying attention. Chaos would be an apt description.

The story begins on that far off day in April when Theresa May stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street and said she was calling a general election explicitly to win a mandate to negotiate Brexit on her terms – terms which she had set out in her Lancaster House speech in January. She did not get the electorate’s go-ahead. Indeed, she lost seats and her overall majority in parliament. So, even if the new government is clinging on to the Lancaster House policies like a drowning man to a life raft, it has no democratic mandate to do so. And already, only two weeks into the negotiations, it is clear that sticking to those policies will ensure either a very disadvantageous agreement or, worst of all, no agreement at all.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has lost her two chiefs of staff, the head of her Policy Unit and her director of communications; the Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu) has lost two of its four ministers and David Davis has also lost his chief of staff. One can imagine what Lady Bracknell would have said about that.

Some of those losses, in particular those of Theresa May’s chiefs of staff, whose baleful influence on the Brexit talks was becoming daily more apparent, can reasonably be described as creative destruction; but not the others. No way, surely, to start the most complex and consequential negotiations the country has undertaken in living memory.

Also there are serious signs of disconnects between those parts of the governmental machine which are needed to bargain with Brussels and those whose task is to implement what is negotiated. No. 10 has been out of sync with Dexeu; Dexeu is out of sync with the rest of Whitehall; and the Foreign Office, which reached out to Brussels and our diplomatic posts in the 27 other EU capitals, is no longer the smoothly running Rolls-Royce of a coordinating machine that was the envy of our EU partners for 45 years.

And then there is the parliamentary obstacle course facing the government: eight or more hefty pieces of sensitive and contentious primary legislation to be put through with only a wafer-thin majority in the Commons and none in the Lords. A government, moreover, riven by dissension within its own ranks over the relative priority to be given to trade and to control over immigration; over what to do with the 34 EU regulatory agencies which must either be accepted or replaced; and over how to handle the albatross of dispute settlement procedures. These will be essential in any new relationship but must not, in the government’s ideologically driven logic, provide a continuing role for the European Court of Justice. Mission impossible, that one.

So, as Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Well, some course corrections are needed before negotiations over the new UK-EU partnership begin – hopefully towards the end of the year. There needs to be a set of positive proposals on cooperation in research and battling international crime and on ways of ensuring the continuation of joint efforts in foreign and security policy. There has to be a shift away from secrecy and stovepipes. A more transparent approach is required, with more willingness to consult parliament, the devolved administrations, business, the unions, the universities and the scientific community in a meaningful way.

Will those course corrections upset some of the government’s supporters? Yes, obviously. But the alternative will be to come back with a poor deal, or no deal at all, and risk having it rejected by parliament. Not an outcome that is in the national interest; but those are the rocks towards which the government is steering. Chaos is exactly the right word.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    One Response to “The government is in chaos over Brexit”

    • I am amused by much heard about brexit. But by far the most amusing due to its absurdly inaccurate portrayal of brexit as a divorce. It is to me much more like the immediate disowning one feels following resigning from a job or leaving a club. The managers of which at once turn their back, or mislead, or otherwise attempt to severely disadvantage said leader. Yet Tory and Labour keep spouting like they have some influence. Only point to ponder is whom they expect to fool with this crap.