Weekly round-up: Sake, love ins, long hours

by Luke Lythgoe | 01.09.2017

This week Theresa May announced her intention to run again in the next general election, telling journalists: “I am not a quitter.” But there’s a long, hard Brexit slog ahead of her, as events this week have shown.

Land of the rising trade deal?

The prime minister has spent most of the week in Japan discussing trade. It became clear that Japanese officials have serious anxieties about Brexit and are very much focused on completing a trade deal with the EU, despite previous warm words about an early free trade deal with Britain. Nevertheless, May walked away with a new UK-Japan “vision statement” aiming to “quickly” establish a new trading relationship after the UK left the EU.

Not everyone was impressed by the trip. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said the PM should be in Europe trying to get a good Brexit deal for the aviation industry, “not swanning around Japan drinking tea and sake”.

Liam Fox – the trade minister who’s not allowed to trade – was also in Tokyo. He used the moment to declare the UK should not let itself be “blackmailed” by the EU over the order of Brexit negotiations. Which brings us neatly onto…

Ding, ding, ding! Brexit talks round 3

All week Brexit Secretary David Davis has been in Brussels going toe to toe with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team. This round of talks culminated in a prickly press conference in which Barnier said they “did not get any decisive progress” on key issues and Davis agreed “there remains some way to go”.

The omens had hardly been auspicious. Alongside the talks we saw top EU officials slating Britain’s recent position papers and the British trying to systematically unpick Brussels’s methodology around the so-called divorce bill – with pro-Brexit MPs predictably fuelling the fire in the right-wing press. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, also criticised the “slow progress” and slammed Britain’s inflexibility in a Telegraph column.

Another distraction on the sidelines was former British PM Tony Blair, accused by Tory MPs of “betraying Britain” for a “nauseating love in” with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Back in London, Brexit officials set up a meeting to explain their position to EU ambassadors. The charm offensive fell on deaf ears with France’s ambassador to the EU saying the picture the UK gave was one of “confusion and hesitation”.

Labour shifts position

The big news from the Opposition benches came over the bank holiday weekend when shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer announced the party’s support for staying in the single market during any transition period. He refused to put a time limit on this period, saying it should be “as short as possible but as long as necessary”.

The new policy has put the fear up several Labour MPs, concerned about how it will play out in their Brexit-voting constituencies. But the Tories should also feel the pressure, as Labour’s proposal offers a clear way of providing continuity and stability for businesses and trade after March 2019 – something the government has failed to coherently lay out.

What other people have said…

A cross-party group of MPs has taken the trade debate further by warning Britain should stay in the EU’s customs union permanently or risk “a reckless and economically dangerous self-inflicted wound”.

In further warnings, the British Retail Consortium predicted shop prices will be driven up by Brexit, particularly now that currency hedging policies to protect shoppers are coming to an end. University College London has also revealed that 95% of its EU academics – roughly a third of its total academic staff – have been approached by universities abroad. And former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged Britain to keep free movement, saying that without mobility “it is very difficult for individuals to live their lives to the fullest and live their dreams”.

But maybe it isn’t all bad. As Tory peer and retail tycoon Philip Harris told Radio 4’s Today programme, outside the EU young people will be able to work longer hours. When challenged by the presenter that his company had done rather well within the EU, he provided a typically evidence-lite Brexiter answer: “I just feel we would be better off out.”

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley