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The big picture
After a bit more of what might be termed phoney war, this week we are back to the nitty gritty of negotiations between teams from the UK and EU.
On Monday morning, the UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, faced chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, across a table in Brussels.
“We now delve into the heart of the matter,” Barnier said ahead of the discussions, while Davis said the talks would be “getting into the real substance” of what had to be decided, with a priority being the reciprocal rights of EU nationals abroad.
The background was not entirely promising, with the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, last week telling MPs the EU could “go whistle” over a request for a large settlement from the UK.
This brought a curt response from Barnier at a press conference to preview the next round of talks: “I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking.”
Back in London, Thursday saw the publication of what was to be called the great repeal bill, now the European Union (Withdrawal) bill, which aims to shift a mass of EU legislation and regulation into UK jurisdiction on the stroke of Brexit.
The 66-page bill prompted some immediate concerns, including the risk that human rights could be undermined and the threat that ministers could seize sweeping powers to tweak laws without full parliamentary scrutiny.
There is also the issue that the bill would officially require so-called legislative consent motions from the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and this might not happen.
While the Northern Irish assembly remains suspended amid political deadlock, the Scottish and Welsh leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones, rejected the bill immediately in a joint letter, calling it “a naked power grab” by Westminster.
The view from Europe
EU officials in Brussels don’t expect any deals to be struck this week, or even over the summer.
Progress is crucial, however – by late October EU leaders will decide if “sufficient progress” on the Brexit divorce has been made to allow future trade talks to go ahead.
Elmar Brok, a German centre-right MEP who helps coordinate the European parliament’s position on Brexit, said Brussels’ representatives would also be measuring the strength of the British position.
“The plenary meetings will show us whether there is a realistic basis for agreement, or whether the British government cannot move at all because of its own problems.”
One of May’s achievements at last week’s G20 was to boast that Donald Trump had promised a swift trade deal. With his visit to the UK postponed, however, Trump’s attention was all on mainland Europe, accompanying French president Emmanuel Macron to Bastille Day festivities.
“Nothing will ever separate us,” Macron said of the US-France relationship in a speech at the end of parade, adding that Trump’s presence was “the sign of a friendship across the ages”.
Meanwhile, back in Westminster
The phrase “rats in a sack” is perhaps overused when it comes to political infighting, but it seems appropriate to describe the squabbles over Brexit in the UK’s cabinet.
This was, of course, largely done via anonymous quotes to newspapers, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond – seen as the standout soft Brexiter among senior ministers – was the main target, facing three consecutive days of leaks.
On Saturday it was claimed he told the cabinet that driving modern trains was so easy “even a woman can do it”, bringing a rebuke from Theresa May (Hammond later denied the report), while on Sunday it was reported he told the same meeting that public sector workers were overpaid.
On Monday, the Telegraph cited an anonymous cabinet colleague as saying Hammond and the Treasury “want to frustrate Brexit” and that the chancellor viewed Brexiters as “pirates”.
This prompted a clearly irate May to promise, via her spokesman, that this week’s cabinet meeting would see the PM “reminding [ministers] of their responsibilities” – in other words, to button it.
This is all, of course, connected to May’s weakened status after losing her Commons majority last month. Various cabinet factions are positioning themselves for any future leadership contest, and also to secure their own view on Brexit.
It looks chaotic, but it’s worth remembering that other governments – John Major’s, and the worst of the Blair-Brown era – went on for years amid equally vicious off-the-record briefings. May will nonetheless hope the parliamentary recess, starting on Friday, will cool tempers.
You should also know …
- The head of the National Audit Office has warned that a lack of leadership in Theresa May’s government means a successful Brexit could fall apart “like a chocolate orange”.
- Tony Blair has warned that the combination of Brexit followed by a Jeremy Corbyn government would soon leave Britain “flat on our back”.
- The former head of the civil service, Gus O’Donnell, has warned Britain is in for a “rough ride” unless cabinet ministers unite and back a long transition deal to soften the impact of Brexit.
- Jeremy Corbyn spent nearly two-and-a-half hours talking Brexit in Brussels with Michel Barnier (and have him an Arsenal shirt).
- The UK risks “sleepwalking” into a post-Brexit future of insecure, unsafe and increasingly expensive food supplies, a report by influential academics has said.
- The majority of Brexit supporters would be happy to swap European free movement for single market access, according to two studies.
- King Felipe of Spain used a speech to the UK parliament to call on the British government to work towards a new agreement over the future of Gibraltar.
- The Labour peer (and government adviser) Lord Adonis has compared leaving the EU to the mistake of British appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s.
- Budget airline easyJet is to open a new European headquarters in Austria to enable it to continue to operate flights within the EU after Brexit.
The Guardian’s John Harris and Jonathan Freedland go head-to-head on whether Brexit could ever be stopped. Harris argues that even those who oppose leaving should think seriously about the repercussions of halting Brexit:
Thanks to the kind of long transition arrangement proposed by the Confederation of British Industry, some think the process might fizzle out. Perhaps a second referendum will kill it.
This week, a talented Tweeter wrote an imagined speech for May, conceding “the Brexit process would inflict much unsalvageable damage on our country”, and announcing the U-turn to end all U-turns.
But there is always something missing: any sense of the backlash that would be sparked, the myth of betrayal that would sit at the heart of our politics, and the great gift likely to be handed to ugly and opportunistic forces that are still out there, waiting for their chance.
Freedland, however, argues even leavers might want a rethink later down the line, as negotiations get tougher:
Brexit must not be thwarted by a clubby political class conspiring to bury last year’s verdict. There is only one way it can be done, and that is by the people themselves.
A democratic choice can be voided only by another democratic choice, expressed either in a general election – or a second referendum. For now, next to no one will talk of such a thing publicly. Privately, it’s a different story.
“I’ve never said I want a second referendum, even though I desperately do,” is how one remainer Labour MP puts it.
Over at the Telegraph, Juliet Samuel warns of the dangers of cabinet infighting as the clock ticks on the negotiations, when disagreements mask far greater ambitions than just control over the shape of Brexit:
The chaos means that our negotiating team cannot guarantee that its promises or demands will not shift or fall apart later. This is poison for a negotiation, substantially raising the risk that the talks will fall apart.
If so, the public won’t easily forgive the Conservatives. It’s one thing for Brexit negotiations to collapse over a fundamentally irresolvable disagreement. It is quite another for them to fail because the Government is simply too incompetent and wracked with infighting.
None of this is necessary or inevitable. It has come about because Cabinet ministers are putting their own ambitions and grudges before the national interest. They should instead be playing a long game.
Yes, it’s very much a partial view of the process. But it’s also very eloquent.
WE NOW GO LIVE TO BREXIT pic.twitter.com/edf48mbqmj
July 16, 2017 James Felton