Earlier today, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson used a widely trailed keynote speech at Policy Exchange to set out his vision of a “liberal Brexit”. This was the first in a series of choreographed Cabinet interventions that will take place over the next few days, aimed at breaking the deadlock over the terms of the post-Brexit implementation period and the nature of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU.
Those hoping for a revelatory new announcement or change in direction would have been disappointed. Despite an emotionally aware acknowledgement that many Remain voters still feel a sense of anger and alienation as a result of the referendum outcome, and reassuring noises that British citizens would still have the freedom to retire to Spain, work overseas and go on “cheap flights to stag dos”, there was little detail about how his optimistic vision of an amicable settlement could be squared with the EU’s hostility to his insistence that the UK actively pursue regulatory divergence, and his rejection of Brussels’ demands that Britain continue to implement new European legislation over the two-year transition.
The Government is fast approaching what EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has called “decision time”, the point at which it must set out in greater detail how it intends to address the contradictions thrown up by Brexit. While the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech at the start of 2017 set out the Government’s headline aspirations – a bespoke and comprehensive FTA and customs arrangement that would allow the UK to retain as much of the benefits of EU membership as possible – the difficult questions about how this might work in practice have been put off, largely out of political necessity but also because the fact that much of the last year’s negotiations focused on the low hanging fruit of withdrawal issues allowed for procrastination.
A series of Cabinet sub-committee meetings earlier this month sought to agree a common position on how closely the UK should remain aligned with the EU after Brexit and thrash out some of the more challenging issues, including how a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic can be achieved despite Britain’s forthcoming status outside the Customs Union.
The Prime Minister is caught dangerously between three poles of opinion within the parliamentary Conservative Party – those who believe that the UK should continue to embrace close alignment with the EU on customs and regulations to retain as much of the benefits of the Single Market as possible; those who want her to take a stronger line and believe that the short-term pain of disengagement from Brussels is a price worth paying for the opportunity of more substantive trade deals elsewhere; and those who recognise the need for pragmatism but find Barnier’s punitive transition proposals and apparent unwillingness to negotiate in good faith hard to stomach. Alongside this, she has to contend with a Labour Party whose MPs remain largely unreconciled with Brexit and are doing everything they can to frustrate her efforts.
Indeed, the Commission’s ham fisted approach – leaking selective accounts of private conversations in ways that are unflattering to Ministers; a provocative position paper suggesting that the EU could unilaterally impose extra-judicial sanctions during the implementation period; and setting out negotiating principles for the transition that Barnier knows the Government will struggle to get through Parliament, while all designed to put the UK under pressure, are at risk of backing the Prime Minister into a corner from which there may be no escape but a unilateral walk-out from the talks.
Some Member States are worried that Barnier is playing with fire. If the UK is not extended an olive branch or given the genuine prospect of a meaningful and substantial trade deal that encompasses financial services to compensate for the harsh withdrawal and transition terms demanded by the EU, then the balance of power may swing further towards the more Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative parliamentary party and leave the Prime Minister with no option but to conclude that no deal really is better than the one on offer.
The point at which that decision needs to be made is fast approaching. It is possible that whichever side of the fence the Prime Minister comes down on, there will be political bloodshed through Cabinet resignations, particularly if the London local election results are disappointing. That, however, may be the price that has to be paid to resolve the Brexit conundrum and move the negotiations forward.