Expert View

PM’s hard choices for the autumn

by David Hannay | 01.08.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Theresa May is to interrupt her alpine walking holiday this week to visit Emmanuel Macron, in an attempt to get the French president to soften his Brexit position. This follows her recent announcement that she is assuming personal charge of the Brexit negotiations.

The prime minister’s more active role not only downgrades the position of her new Brexit secretary, ensuring that none of Dominic Raab’s EU interlocutors will take what he says very seriously, but it also raises the stakes for herself. Of course she has always had overall responsibility for the negotiations, but this step ensures she will be held directly responsible for every future policy move and decision. Here are some of the main issues at stake.


Anyone who expects that we will have negotiated a deal, or even see a conclusive failure to reach one, by the October target date, really is demonstrating the triumph of hope over experience.

The Conservative party conference in early October leaves little time for negotiation before the European Council meeting later that month. And the efforts of ministers to travel around Europe during August stirring up apathy aren’t likely to get very far. Much more likely is an outcome of some sort by November or December.

Substance v. waffle

Will any document on the new relationship, which the government has insisted will be available for Parliament to approve, contain real substance or just consist of waffle and warm words? The UK’s negotiating position after Brexit is likely to be even weaker: we will have lost the leverage of needing to reach a Withdrawal Agreement and be constrained by the ridiculously inadequate 21-month transitional period with the prospect of a cliff-edge in January 2021. We therefore need substance rather than waffle. But that will require more compromises.

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No deal

Even if the government has finally realised that no deal is not better than a bad deal, the  Brexiters propping May up have yet to reach that common-sense conclusion. So the weeks ahead are going to be filled with self-generated scare stories about the perils for trade flows and the inadequacies of stockpiling – Project Fear orchestrated by the Brexiters themselves. All of which will only weaken the government’s negotiating hand in Brussels, not strengthen it as is being claimed.

UK/EU trade after Brexit

The government’s much-touted Facilitated Customs Arrangement is clearly not going to fly in anything like its original form. Will the government have the courage to recognise that a customs union of some sort will be needed, together with a substantial degree of regulatory alignment ? Don’t count on it.

The role of the European Court of Justice

The government’s elaborate contortions to avoid an acceptable role for the ECJ in dispute settlements is now preventing progress on a whole range of issues. Most important is the government’s proposals on internal security and the European Arrest Warrant. Will this Gordian knot be cut?

Loose ends from the divorce agreement

Obviously the most important of these is what has come to be known as the Irish “backstop”. So far the government has only said what it will not accept. But without a solution there will not be a deal.

Meanwhile there is still the matter of Gibraltar to be resolved. As to the treatment of EU citizens, the government has probably complicated matters by revealing in its most recent White Paper that it would rely on powers under the 1971 Immigration Act to implement the agreement reached last December, arguing that this would provide more flexibility and certainty. Flexibility perhaps, but certainty is less sure. So why not take the whole matter out of this negotiation by announcing unilaterally that, deal or no deal, we would honour our obligations to those citizens? That really would provide certainty.

It is really hard to look at this list without a sinking feeling. So much to resolve in such a short time. It is surely time to rethink the whole enterprise, or at least to commit to a People’s Vote on the outcome.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “PM’s hard choices for the autumn”

  • I can’t see this government, or any other one led by a pro-Brexit Conservative, doing the sensible thing and thereby conceding what would be in effect defeat. Mrs May just might on her own, but her Brexiteer faction would probably prevent her

    Which means that the anti-Brexit majority in the Commons has got to get its act together and insist on constructive action. It would be best if that grouping would take control and withdraw the art 50 notice on its own initiative, but I suspect they would want to be sure the public was behind them before doing that. Consequently, a further referendum is probably a pre-requisite, one that offers at least Remain and leave on whatever inadequate terms May has got. Realistically It may well have to offer “Leave without a deal” as a third option, even though no responsible government would ever implement that. In which case there would have to be a transferable vote system, which would doubtless give the Electoral Commission sleepless nights.

    But the situation demands robust and, if necessary, novel action to keep us from the cliff edge. The longer we leave things, the more evidence will accumulate of the harm that Brexit will cause the citizens of this country, and is already causing to its public finances. So there is a nice balance to be struck between waiting for this evidence to become overwhelming, and getting on and doing what has to be done as soon as possible.

  • Only the abandonment of the ehole disastrous project will work. The EU surely cannot countenance the chaos of no deal. Thete has to be a complete overhaul of Europe anyway.I would put my money on an EU salvation initiative if Parliament does not come to its senses and withdraw Article 50

  • It has been obvious from the very start that the best the UK can do is Norway (perhaps in the form of a permanent transition; hence, the latest FT news on a “fudge” political declaration.)

    Since Norway just means we pay 40 billion to lose our vote, perhaps people will eventually acknowledge that “No Brexit is better than a Bad Brexit.”

    It reminds me of one of my favorite jokes:

    Q: “Which is better: sex or a cheese sandwich?”

    A: “A cheese sandwich, of course…

    “Nothing is better than sex…

    “…and a cheese sandwich is better than nothing.”

    The voters decided that Brexit is better than No Brexit…

    But a Norway Brexit is better than a no-deal Brexit…

    …and No Brexit is better than a Norway Brexit.

  • You forgot one thing…Europe cannot help us if we will not accept the help on offer. We are still too busy being arrogant exceptionalists. That situation will not change, unfortunately, until people start to suffer and demand change. I’m not sure exactly where the idea that a club of nations operated on agreed universally-adopted rules has a ‘duty of care’ towards a nation that seeks to both undermine from within and leave said club.

  • Well. The biggest lie of all in Brexit is that we would be able to negotiate it. The EU has always made clear ( and that includes us) that any country leaving has to accept the freedoms to stay in a customs arrangement. The Brexiteers are being disingenuous when they say we can negotiate Brexit on our terms. Rubbish!