Dispute over plan­ning for ‘no deal’ Brexit re­flects a deep cab­i­net split

One side pri­ori­tises trade while for the other it’s all about sovereignty

The Irish Times - - World News - De­nis Staunton

Any other time but now, a for­mer Con­ser­va­tive chan­cel­lor call­ing for the cur­rent Con­ser­va­tive chan­cel­lor to be sacked would be news. But when Nigel Law­son yes­ter­day urged Theresa May to get rid of Philip Ham­mond, no­body took much no­tice.

Like other hard­core Brex­i­teers, Law­son thinks Ham­mond is too gloomy about Brexit and is out­raged by the chan­cel­lor’s re­fusal to spend much money to pre­pare Bri­tain for leav­ing the Euro­pean Union with­out a deal.

“I fear that he is un­help­ful. He may not in­tend it but in prac­tice what he is do­ing is very close to sab­o­tage,” Law­son told the BBC.

For the Brex­i­teers, Ham­mond’s re­luc­tance to plan for “no deal” is a ploy to in­crease pres­sure on Bri­tain’s ne­go­tia­tors to com­pro­mise with the EU to se­cure an agree­ment. With EU lead­ers likely to con­clude next week that in­suf­fi­cient progress has been made to move on to the sec­ond phase of ne­go­ti­a­tions, the fo­cus has moved to De­cem­ber.

Ham­mond sug­gested this week that, un­less a tran­si­tion deal is agreed by the end of the year, it will be too late to of­fer busi­nesses the re­as­sur­ance they need that, for two years after Brexit, noth­ing much will change.

For the Brex­i­teers, fail­ure to move in De­cem­ber to sub­stan­tive talks about a fu­ture trade deal is the sig­nal to start pre­par­ing to leave the EU on March 30th, 2019 with no deal at all.

Sim­i­lar con­clu­sion

Euro­pean Coun­cil pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk hinted at a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion on Tues­day, say­ing that fail­ure to make progress by De­cem­ber would mean that “we will have to think about where we are head­ing”.

Ham­mond told MPs this week that there is a the­o­ret­i­cal chance that, with­out a deal, all flights be­tween Bri­tain and Europe would be grounded. As Brex­i­teers ac­cused the chan­cel­lor of scare­mon­ger­ing, Brian Strut­ton, head of the pi­lots’ union, said the threat was real and se­ri­ous.

“UK air­lines could find they have to stop fly­ing, it’s that se­ri­ous. And this would im­pact pas­sen­gers long be­fore March 2019 be­cause air­lines couldn’t sell ad­vance tick­ets and, frankly, would pas­sen­gers risk buy­ing them?” he said.

The dispute over plan­ning for a “no deal” Brexit re­flects a split within the cab­i­net be­tween those like Ham­mond, who pri­ori­tise ac­cess to EU mar­kets and oth­ers, and like Boris John­son and Michael

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EU coun­tries do not know if what Theresa May says is really the shared, sup­ported po­si­tion of her party and gov­ern­ment

Gove, for whom Brexit is about max­imis­ing sovereignty. The prime min­is­ter, whose own view is un­known, has been un­able to de­vise and sus­tain an agreed cab­i­net po­si­tion on Brexit.

All her min­is­ters pre-ap­proved last month’s speech in Florence, which called for a sta­tus quo tran­si­tion deal and promised to pay Bri­tain’s fi­nan­cial dues to the EU in re­turn for a trade deal pro­vid­ing more ac­cess to EU mar­kets than Canada, but fewer obli­ga­tions than Norway.

Labour’s shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, Keir Starmer, ar­gues that May’s mes­sage is con­fused be­cause her party is so di­vided on the is­sue.

“A con­tra­dic­tion in May’s Brexit po­si­tion is that she rules out shared in­sti­tu­tions with the EU, while she wants a close part­ner­ship with the EU. She has a dou­ble-speak on Brexit be­cause of the deep di­vi­sions in her own party. EU coun­tries do not know if what she says is really the shared, sup­ported po­si­tion of her party and gov­ern­ment,” he says.

Clearer pol­icy

After a good elec­tion cam­paign dur­ing which the party said as lit­tle as pos­si­ble about Brexit, Starmer used the sum­mer to nudge Labour to­wards a clearer pol­icy. The party, in­clud­ing its front bench, most of its MPs and Jeremy Cor­byn and his cir­cle, are now united be­hind a co­her­ent po­si­tion on Brexit.

Labour not only wants Bri­tain to re­main in the sin­gle mar­ket dur­ing a tran­si­tion pe­riod but be­lieves that per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship of the cus­toms union and “a changed re­la­tion­ship with the sin­gle mar­ket” are vi­able op­tions be­yond that. The party be­lieves that the EU will re­main Bri­tain’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner, that “no deal” would be a disas­ter, and that Par­lia­ment can vote down a “no deal” Brexit.

A “changed re­la­tion­ship with the sin­gle mar­ket” is code for a re­lax­ation of or opt-out from rules on free move­ment of peo­ple and on state aid and com­pe­ti­tion, which Cor­byn’s ad­vis­ers fear could in­ter­fere with a fu­ture Labour gov­ern­ment’s in­dus­trial strat­egy and na­tion­al­i­sa­tion plans.

Un­like the gov­ern­ment, Starmer ac­knowl­edges that Labour’s goals in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions can only be achieved by sac­ri­fic­ing sovereignty over reg­u­la­tion.

“We want some­thing which main­tains the ben­e­fits of the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket and we know that means agree­ing to a level play­ing-field,” he says.

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