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Analysis

Welcome back to Brexit chaos, prime minister

by Luke Lythgoe | 14.08.2017

After her three-week walking holiday in the Alps, Theresa May returns to something apparently resembling an orderly government that is finally beginning to look prepared for Brexit. This facade will almost certainly crumble.

In recent days, two major elements seem to have fallen into place. Firstly, after a public spat over transitional deals, free movement and customs unions, Philip Hammond and Liam Fox – seen to represent the two extremes in the Cabinet’s hard/soft Brexit divide – look to have buried the hatchet in a joint article in The Telegraph.

Secondly, this week will see the publication of the first of several new Brexit position papers outlining the government’s stance on key topics such as the Irish border and post-exit customs arrangements. The government will be hoping these documents smother accusations of being “unprepared” for the Brexit talks. The third round of negotiations is due later this month.

Yet harmony does not reign. The long-term prospects for the Hammond-Fox truce on transition seem limited. In particular, Hammond’s pledge to “leave the customs union” in March 2019 would prove difficult for any responsible chancellor to keep – especially one who’s argued so strongly against such an economic cliff-edge. Even Hammond’s colleagues don’t seem to have faith in the truce, with one minister reportedly saying the chancellor holds the trade secretary “in contempt”. Note how members of May’s government of “strength and unity” are still briefing against each other anonymously in the press.

Neither are the latest position papers likely to end the reputation for unreadiness of David Davis’s Brexit negotiating team. The fact remains that Brussels has published nine position papers to the UK’s three up to this point, and the EU’s guidelines for the talks go into far more detail than the Tories’ comparable Brexit white paper. The new UK position papers are also reportedly causing their their own chaos, with civil servants concerned about poor policy-making as key Brexit decisions are “rushed through” over summer while many politicians are absent. The ultimate test, of course, will be whether enough detail actually appears in the documents to satisfy the government’s critics.

Meanwhile, the cracks that some expected to see among the remaining 27 EU members have yet to materialise. Indeed, the UK is finding opposition from those it presumed to be allies, such as new Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s scepticism over Britain’s approach to the question of the Irish border.

May will also have to address the gloomy economic outlook when Parliament returns. Pro-European Tory Nicky Morgan is already using her new position as chair of the Treasury select committee to exert pressure, forcing a stark warning on the financial sector from the Bank of England.

Parliament will be a major headache for May this autumn. June’s election produced an eclectic mix of hard-Brexit, soft-Brexit and anti-Brexit MPs rather than the pro-Brexit Tory landslide the PM prophesied. Even her own party looks fragile, hostage to the DUP’s demands for Northern Ireland, and with pro-European backbencher Anna Soubry becoming the first Tory MP to suggest she’s willing to ditch her party over Brexit.

The tide of public opinion is also turning. Recent YouGov polling shows only 25% of the public think the government is doing a good job negotiating Brexit. What’s more, Survation has shown 46% now support a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, against 39% opposed.

As InFacts chairman Hugo Dixon argues in today’s Financial Times, “an effective campaign to drive home the madness of Brexit would shift people’s views” further. Theresa May better have returned recharged and battle ready, because she’s got a fight on her hands.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

One Response to “Welcome back to Brexit chaos, prime minister”

  • Fox and Hammond may indeed have temporarily “buried the hatchet” in their own ideological feud, but perhaps this is because they want to keep their hatchets sharp for using on May in the not too distant future. Basically this farce remains a Tory power struggle.