After a few (relatively) quiet weeks, Brexit has blown back on to the front pages.
The UK and the EU27 have moved to the Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations, setting out what the ‘transition period’ will look like – and that got a chilly reception from hard Brexiteers. At Westminster, the Bill’s Second reading took place in the Lords (30 and 31 January), preceded by a flurry of new reports. And, of course, some (rather downbeat) forecasts of the economic effects of Brexit have been leaked from the Cabinet Office.
Last weekend saw a marked increase in ‘Brexit turbulence’ on the Tory backbenches, prompted (in part) by the open letter to business leaders published by HM Treasury, DExEU and BEIS on 26 January.
That letter set out that, during the implementation period (which the PM requested in her Florence speech),
The letter emphasises three key aspects of the implementation period:
The Government’s policy was immediately attacked by Brexiteers, chiefly Jacob Rees-Mogg (head of the hard-Brexit favouring European Research Group of Tory backbenchers). Grilling David Davis during his appearance at the Brexit select committee, he suggested the UK would be a ‘vassal state’ during the two-year implementation phase.
Rees-Mogg has positioned himself, and the ERG, as the protectors of the PM and the official Tory policy on Brexit, ie leaving the EU means leaving the customs union and the single market, from suggestions of a softer Brexit, emanating from within Cabinet (chiefly Philip Hammond) such as that the UK could enter a (new) customs union with the EU27 or seek ‘ongoing regulatory alignment’.
On Monday (29 January), the EU27 Council adopted the negotiating directives for what the Commission prefers to call the ‘transition’ period. The headlines are:
The main points of difference are over free movement and new EU laws introduced during this period. On the former, the PM said (while on her way to China):
It is hard to see how that is consistent with the open letter to business published just days earlier.
On the latter, the SSExEU wants the UK to have a ‘right to object’ to new laws:
But note, too, the brevity of the implementation/transition period: EU officials have long suggested that less than two years is insufficient to agree the ‘bespoke deep and special relationship’ which the UK wants (but can’t define, at least publicly), and that the implementation/transition period will, inevitably, be extended past 31 December 2020.
That has led some Brexiteers to accuse UK Remainers of colluding with the EU to try to morph the ‘transition state’ into a more permanent ‘holding pattern’ – and the template for the UK’s new, long-term position.
It’s stormy weather on all fronts, then, for the Government…