Analysis

May will miss her transition deadline – and may not care

by Hugo Dixon | 07.02.2018

Failing to clinch a stopgap deal at next month’s European summit will be bad for jobs. But our paralysed prime minister might not mind. She would get a perfect alibi to keep kicking the can down the road and refusing to spell out what sort of Brexit she wants.

It’s now hard to see Theresa May hitting her deadline of March 23 to nail down a transitional deal to make sure the economy doesn’t fall off a cliff next year. She has no fewer than three knotty issues to solve: how to stop the return of the Irish border controls now she has rejected staying in any form of customs union with the EU; whether EU citizens who arrive during this stopgap period will get the same rights as those who come before; and how to satisfy the clamours of Tory Brextremists that we mustn’t follow new EU rules during the transition on the grounds that it would turn us into a “vassal state”.

Business is getting antsy

Businesses have been holding back from triggering contingency plans to shift activities across the Channel and Irish Sea because the government has told them it will put in place such a stopgap. But if May misses her deadline, many firms will press the button.

After all, the next scheduled summit where a deal on transition could be agreed isn’t until June 28/29 – only nine months before the prime minister wants to rip us out of the EU. What’s more, that’s after local government elections in May, when the Tories are expected to be thrashed.  Who knows if the prime minister will still be in office after that and whether her replacement would pursue a radically different policy.

Industry is already getting antsy. The British Chambers of Commerce released a strongly-worded statement today saying that “patience is wearing thin” – and they probably haven’t yet clocked that next month’s deadline will slip. Few companies will be willing to take the risk of being left high and dry. And once they shift activities off shore, the jobs and investment won’t be coming back any time soon.

Can-kicking alibi

Although such time-wasting is disastrous for the economy, it may just suit our hapless prime minister. After all, once the transition deal is agreed, the Brexit talks are supposed to focus on the “framework” of the future trading arrangement we want with the EU. May is terrified of talking about this because it will mean she has to tell the EU what she wants – and to do that she first needs to decide which wing of her party she backs, something that could tear the Tories apart.

She probably thinks sticking with meaningless waffle is the best way to maintain her grip on power. And delaying the talks on transition would give her the perfect excuse to do this. What’s more, the longer she can spin things out, the less time there’ll be to come up with a meaningful framework at the end of the talks – so neither Parliament nor the people will know what they are signing up for.

Patriotic pro-Europeans mustn’t let her get away with this. We must point out that there’s no reason we can’t talk about the future framework even before the stopgap is nailed down. The EU certainly wouldn’t object; after all, its initial idea was that we’d discuss the framework before the transition, not after.

We must also point out that, if the prime minister misses the important transitional deadline, she can’t be trusted to hit any deadlines. In particular, her promise that a two-year stopgap will be enough to manage our departure from the EU will be shown to be delusional or dishonest. Even if she eventually clinches a transitional deal to stop the economy falling off a cliff next year, she’ll need to come up with an alternative proposal to stop it plunging into an abyss in 2021.

What a mess.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “May will miss her transition deadline – and may not care”

  • It is apparently going to be necessary that a large number of people lose their jobs in order for voters to realise what Brexit is going to mean. Distrust in politicians runs so deep that ordinary people don’t believe a word they say. They will believe Nissan when it says it can no longer operate in Britain because its just-in-time supply chain requires free movement of goods or keeping large inventories, which are economically unfeasible. Nissan and the others can solve these issues by moving plants just across the Channel, and to enormous welcome. Although no one wants to be the first to go, once the dam breaks, there will be no stopping them after Brexit. Because the British cannot yet imagine such a thing happening, they don’t believe it will. Better it should start now, while we can still rethink.

    And this is not talking the country down. It’s simple reality.