Hammond lays bare fragility of May’s chaotic cabinet

by Luke Lythgoe | 07.12.2017

Philip Hammond was on a roll yesterday. Speaking to the Commons’ Treasury Committee, the chancellor admitted cabinet ministers hadn’t yet discussed their desired Brexit “end state”. He also said the UK would pay its obligations to the EU even without securing a future trade deal. The exchange spoke volumes about Theresa May’s absent leadership and failure to control dissenting voices in her government.

Hammond told MPs that, although “general discussions” about the Brexit negotiations had taken place in cabinet, there had been no “specific mandating of an end‑state position”. What’s more, he suggested this hadn’t even been discussed by the cabinet sub-committee specially set up to address the issue.

The chancellor argued this would “logically” only happen once the EU agreed sufficient progress had been made in the Brexit talks and moved onto phase two. Anything beforehand would be “premature”. A spokesperson for the prime minister supported Hammond’s remarks.

But the EU has a different logic. EU officials began discussing the future trading relationship among themselves, though not with the UK, following October’s EU Council summit. Various documents circulating in Brussels, such as one on aviation leaked to the FT, suggest the EU is discussing its position in some detail.

What’s more, the cabinet’s failure to discuss the desired end state makes a mockery of May’s claim that she wants to discuss a trade deal as soon as possible. If she really did, she’d have her ducks in a row by now. It’s increasingly clear her priority is to keep her fractious cabinet together – and she thinks indecision is the way to achieve that.

Hammond also told the committee that any suggestion Britain might walk away from talks without paying off its obligations to the EU was “not a credible scenario. That is not the kind of country we are.  Frankly, it would not make us a credible partner for future international agreements”.

His reasoning is sound. The divorce bill is to make good on our past promises not a payment for future access to the EU’s market – so it is due whatever happens. But Tory Brexiters would be apoplectic if the government paid Brussels tens of billions of pounds with nothing to show for it. Hammond was quickly slapped down by Number 10, which said any payment proposed by the prime minister was “dependent on us forging that deep and special future relationship” with the EU.

Three things are clear. First, the EU is already more prepared for round two of the Brexit talks than our hapless government. Second, divisions between ministers still exist on basic issues. And third, May’s weakness means she chooses inaction and indecision rather than bringing her cabinet into line behind a single, coherent policy. Now is that any way to run the most important negotiations this country has faced in generations?

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon