Michael Binyon on di­vides in the UK's po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment as Brexit talks start

The Brexit process splits UK’s po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon,

Bri­tain is to­day like a ship drift­ing into a storm with no one in charge. As the gov­ern­ment be­gins ne­go­ti­a­tions to leave the Euro­pean Union, min­is­ters have started ar­gu­ing with each other about what Brexit will mean. With­out a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment and de­pen­dent on the fickle sup­port of 10 mem­bers from North­ern Ire­land, the gov­ern­ment ap­pears paral­ysed. Al­most no leg­is­la­tion is be­ing put for­ward to deal with grow­ing so­cial prob­lems. The Prime Min­is­ter, Theresa May, is openly mocked by some of those in her party, and is not likely to last in of­fice more than a few months. And in­stead of gov­ern­ing, min­is­ters are now jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion to suc­ceed her.

All this is not only mak­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions over Brexit ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, as the Bri­tish side seems to have lit­tle clear idea what it wants; it is also prompt­ing the be­gin­nings of a back­lash against Brexit. Ev­ery day brings news of fresh chal­lenges that will be caused by Bri­tain’s with­drawal from the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket. Man­u­fac­tur­ers speak of fall­ing in­vest­ment, fall­ing business con­fi­dence and fall­ing or­der books. Hos­pi­tals say over­seas nurses are leav­ing in large num­bers and few are be­ing re­cruited from Europe to re­place them. Farm­ers worry that crops will rot in the fields this year as sea­sonal East Euro­pean work­ers will no longer come over to pick them. In­fla­tion is ris­ing, the pound has fallen in value and house prices are stag­nat­ing as un­cer­tainty takes hold of fi­nan­cial mar­kets. And in a re­port de­signed to up­set the wealthy mid­dle class vot­ers who backed the Leave cam­paign, one news­pa­per said that Brexit would stop all au pairs com­ing to Bri­tain, so that there would be no nan­nies or cheap do­mes­tic help for the wealthy in the fu­ture.

Few vot­ers so far have seen much dis­cernible dif­fer­ence, al­though hol­i­days abroad are be­com­ing more ex­pen­sive, food prices are ris­ing and some three mil­lion EU cit­i­zens liv­ing in Bri­tain are be­com­ing anx­ious about their sta­tus. But more and more, con­se­quences un­fore­seen by those who voted to leave the EU are ap­par­ent. One re­cent re­port said that if Bri­tain left Eu­ratom, the EU agency that reg­u­lates the use and ship­ment of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als, it would be un­able to im­port the vi­tal ra­dioac­tive sub­stances for use in can­cer treat­ment. No one who voted to leave in last year’s ref­er­en­dum had that in mind. But the gov­ern­ment in­sists that Bri­tain must leave Eu­ratom, as it is over­seen by the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice, and Mrs. May has de­clared that Bri­tain will not ac­cept the court’s ju­ris­dic­tion over any part of Bri­tain’s na­tional life.

Some op­po­si­tion politi­cians have be­gun to ques­tion the very idea of Brexit. Vin­cent Ca­ble, soon to take over as leader of the small Lib­eral Demo­cratic party, said it may never hap­pen. Tony Blair, the for­mer prime min­is­ter, has sug­gested start­ing a move­ment to re­verse the Brexit vote. A few re­bel­lious Con­ser­va­tives are openly op­pos­ing leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket be­cause of the ef­fect on ex­ports and jobs.

Blair has lit­tle cred­i­bil­ity now, es­pe­cially not in his own Labour party, and the Lib­eral Democrats are not a big force. But the op­po­si­tion Labour party, al­though still com­mit­ted to abid­ing by the vote to leave, are now ex­ploit­ing the gov­ern­ment’s dif­fi­cul­ties. So are the Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ist MPs and the few from Welsh par­ties, who threaten to op­pose the leg­is­la­tion be­ing drawn up to trans­late all for­mer EU reg­u­la­tions over the past 40 years into Bri­tish law. They say the so-called “Great Re­peal Bill” will threaten the rights of work­ers and oth­ers. But if it is de­feated, then al­most all the reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern Bri­tish pub­lic and com­mer­cial life, as well as trade and man­u­fac­tur­ing stan­dards, will be null and void.

Sens­ing the change in pub­lic opin­ion, and the gov­ern­ment’s incoherence, the so-called Remainers are be­com­ing bolder. At the same time, those push­ing for a to­tal sep­a­ra­tion from the EU are be­com­ing ner­vous. Boris Johnson, the for­eign sec­re­tary and a lead­ing cam­paigner for Brexit, dis­missed the claims by Brus­sels for Bri­tain to pay a large sum in EU con­tri­bu­tions al­ready promised by say­ing the re­ported sum of 60 bil­lion eu­ros was ex­tor­tion­ate. He told Brus­sels that it could “go whis­tle”. Michel Barnier, the suave and acer­bic lead ne­go­tia­tor for the EU, re­torted: “I am not hear­ing any whistling, just the clock tick­ing”.

The big ques­tion, how­ever, is whether the Brexit train can now be halted. The word­ing of Ar­ti­cle 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which al­lows two years for di­vorce pro­ceed­ings, is un­clear. Its Bri­tish au­thor, Lord Kerr, who orig­i­nally drew up the word­ing of the treaty, said it was pos­si­ble to halt pro­ceed­ings dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions – as­sum­ing the other EU

SENS­ING THE CHANGE IN PUB­LIC OPIN­ION, AND THE GOV­ERN­MENT'S INCOHERENCE, THE SO-CALLED REMAINERS ARE BE­COM­ING BOLDER. AT THE SAME TIME, THOSE PUSH­ING FOR A TO­TAL SEP­A­RA­TION FROM THE EU ARE BE­COM­ING NER­VOUS

mem­bers agreed – but im­pos­si­ble to re­main in the EU at the end of the two-year ne­go­ti­a­tion pe­riod.

Call­ing a halt to the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions at this stage would be a hu­mil­i­a­tion for Bri­tain, would open it to mock­ery by other EU mem­bers and would leave Lon­don in a far weaker po­si­tion if it asked to re­main a full EU mem­ber. It would also be po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able in Bri­tain and would cause a split and pos­si­bly a com­plete col­lapse in the Con­ser­va­tive party.

Could there be a com­pro­mise? This is now the point of con­tention be­tween lead­ing Bri­tish min­is­ters. Some, es­pe­cially Philip Ham­mond, the fi­nance min­is­ter, ar­gue that Bri­tain must not quit the sin­gle mar­ket and the cus­toms union, as the EU takes about half of all Bri­tish ex­ports and the eco­nomic con­se­quences would be dis­as­trous. But that would mean still ac­cept­ing the author­ity of the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice in case of trade dis­putes. Other hard­line pro-Brexit min­is­ters, in­clud­ing Mrs. May, vig­or­ously re­ject this. The re­sult is that the cabi­net is torn apart by the feud­ing, with each side leak­ing hos­tile re­ports against their col­leagues. And Mrs. May has no author­ity to stop the bick­er­ing.

The man lead­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions for Bri­tain, David Davis, is him­self a con­tender to suc­ceed Mrs. May. He has al­ready made big con­ces­sions to Brus­sels, agree­ing to set­tle the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings first be­fore dis­cussing new trade ar­range­ments. Last week he also con­ceded that there would need to be a tran­si­tional phase af­ter March 2019 to al­low Bri­tain to re­main in the EU tem­po­rar­ily while de­tails of a new treaty to leave were sorted out.

Some pro-EU politi­cians have now seized this as a pos­si­ble long-term ar­range­ment. Could Bri­tain not re­main a “tem­po­rary” EU mem­ber for­ever? Other tran­si­tional agree­ments have never got be­yond the half­way stage, such as the re­form of the House of Lords. But po­lit­i­cal re­al­ists say this would never be ac­cept­able to the EU, and would leave Bri­tain un­able to seek any trade deals out­side.

Si­mon Fraser, the for­mer head of the For­eign Of­fice and now an ad­viser on Brexit, says that Bri­tain needs to feel more pain be­fore it is po­lit­i­cally pos­si­ble to re­verse the ref­er­en­dum de­ci­sion. That may take sev­eral years. Mean­while, the feud­ing in­side the Con­ser­va­tive party will con­tinue un­til Mrs. May quits. So far, there is no ap­par­ent suc­ces­sor. And with no author­ity and no strat­egy to im­pose her ver­sion of Brexit on her min­is­ters, Mrs. May can­not make any big de­ci­sions. The only thing the Con­ser­va­tives all know they would op­pose is an­other gen­eral elec­tion – the third in three years. That is be­cause all the polls show that Labour would win an over­whelm­ing vic­tory. So if the Con­ser­va­tives do not de­stroy them­selves in civil war, they could be de­stroyed at the bal­lot box.

Signs of change. Ev­ery day brings news of fresh chal­lenges that will be caused by Bri­tain's with­drawal from the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket. Man­u­fac­tur­ers speak of fall­ing in­vest­ment, fall­ing business con­fi­dence and fall­ing or­der books

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