Tories still at war over transition

by Hugo Dixon | 25.09.2017

It was always clear that the truce brokered in last week’s Cabinet didn’t cover the Brexit endgame. But it initially seemed Theresa May had got her warring ministers to agree on what sort of transitional deal the UK should seek. It’s now clear there isn’t even agreement on that.

The main bones of contention is how long should the transitional deal last? The prime minister was vague in her Florence speech, saying it should be “around” two years. The Telegraph says Boris Johnson is insisting that it should be a maximum of two years, while Philip Hammond says it should be more like three.

The dispute matters because the transition could interfere with the Conservatives’ reelection prospects. A two-year transition would end in March 2021, whereas a three-year one would finish in March 2022 just a couple of months before the next general election.

Tory hard Brexiters wish to get the transition over and done with rapidly so we are clearly out of the EU by the election. The snag is that a transition is needed both to negotiate a deep new agreement with the EU and to implement it – and two years isn’t likely to be enough. Fixating on such a short period now could be a recipe for chaos, hardly a smart electoral tactic.

But it’s not even clear that a three-year transition would be clever. Though there would be a greater chance of getting our ducks in a row by then, the end of the transition would coincide with us quitting the single market and customs union. Pushing the economy over a cliff just before facing the voters doesn’t look that smart.

Either way, being desperate to get the transition over before the election puts the government in a weak negotiating position. As the time clock starts ticking to conclude a final deal, the EU will be able to grind further concessions from us.

It would be better to keep the length of the transitional period open-ended, as Jeremy Corbyn has argued, until at least we have a clearer idea of what sort of final deal we are going to get. The problem is that hard Brexiters would smell a rat, thinking this was a plot to keep Britain in the EU’s orbit perpetually.

May won’t be able to duck the issue for ever. Indeed, she will have to address it next year, if not earlier, as part of the Brexit negotiations. Expect there then to be yet more conniptions in the Cabinet.

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Edited by Sam Ashworth-Hayes