Steve Richards: Look closely and you can see movement on Brexit
Occasionally David Davis and Theresa May do defy the Brexit hardliners in their party.
The public statements of Theresa May and her senior ministers on Brexit are more revealing than they seem. They are at least as illuminating than the frenzy of private briefings that are of little significance at this early stage of the negotiation.
Indeed they are so illuminating that the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, explored aloud in front of the Brexit Committee on Wednesday the possibility that Parliament might not get a vote on the deal until the UK has left the EU. Davis was contemplating an impractical scenario where a deal is not agreed until the last moment. It is impractical because a deal has to be ratified by several parliaments, not just the one at Westminster. Still Davis’ willingness to move on to dangerous hypothetical terrain highlights the degree to which the tortuous, nightmarishly multi layered Brexit saga is being played out in public.
Even an instinctively evasive Prime Minister cannot be wholly obtuse when questioned by MPs for two hours as May has been several times. The same applies more widely to Davis, who does not even seek to be evasive perhaps because he is above all an admirer of Parliament, a politician who has spent much of his career interrogating ministers from the backbenches.
From what both have said publicly we can discern that they ache for a deal and are not remotely gung-ho about a no deal. During May’s Commons’ statement on Monday a lot of the questions from both sides were about the prospect of a no deal. At no point did May respond by putting the case for such an outcome. She has had endless opportunities to do so and yet there is no example of her asserting vividly that the UK would flourish without a deal. She utters the banality that “no deal is better than a bad deal” but that is not the same as explaining how the UK lion would roar under such circumstances. She never makes such an explanation. I sense that with good cause May would regard a no deal as a catastrophic failure and not a triumphant act of liberation.
Davis is more candid. He admits transparently that the threat of a no deal is a negotiating ploy to secure a better deal. This may or may not be a wise admission to make and the tactic, as a negotiating ploy, may well be a misjudgement, but he too has never waxed lyrical about such an outcome.
In his statement to MPs last week Davis added that a responsible government must prepare for all eventualities but again that is not exactly a rallying call for no deal. A growing number of Conservative MPs, though still a relatively small proportion of this troubled parliamentary party, enthuse about a no deal. This does not mean they can or will prevail. They are also keen for May to walk out of the talks. Bernard Jenkin said recently she would be cheered to the rafters if she did so. On this Davis was unequivocal in the Commons last week. May and Davis would not be walking out of the talks. Occasionally they do defy the hardliners in public.
Where May is unambiguously clear, and where she adopts a rare tone of defiance, is in relation to the UK’s departure from the EU. She said in the Commons on Monday, as she has said many times before: "The UK is leaving the European Union in March 2019." The assertion always gets a cheer from her backbenchers before she moves on to more thorny terrain.
Having generated an approving cheer in relation to the unequal formal departure date she dared to tell none other than the deified Jacob Rees Mogg that the European Court would inevitably have some jurisdiction during the transition phase, or what she calls the implementation phase ( a phrase coined by David Davis to make the process seem more positive). The continued involvement of the European Court during any transition is a statement of the obvious but not one May had uttered so clearly before. She did so to a figure who was bound to tour the studios to express concern, as Rees Mogg did in the hours that followed.
Evidently May calculates that delivering to pledge to ‘leave’ the EU by March 2019 will give her some wriggle room with those aching for an even more macho approach than the UK government has already unwisely taken. She has always said there will have to be compromises on both sides. Some of her MPs will hate any compromise but she holds out to them their fundamental goal with rare unfoggy clarity: "We will leave the European Union in March 2019." (Cheers from some Tory MPs).
Her current stance on the transitional phase is both absurdly obtuse and yet clear. In every speech she makes she insists that formally the UK will leave the single market and customs union in March 2019. Yet she also argues that businesses should not notice any significant differences for “around two years” as they prepare for the final outcome, whatever form that takes. In other words she wants a transition where the UK is in the single market and customs union but it is called something else. There will have to be some cosmetic differences that she can flag up to paranoid backbenchers. May has had a go herself at the possible terminology to both in and out. During her Lancaster House Brexit speech in January she spoke of becoming an “associate member” of the Customs Unions. For her backbenchers and some ministers she will declare the UK has left. To business leaders she will seek to reassure that little will change for a bit longer.
Last Monday the Prime Minister suggested the ‘implementation’ phase could not be agreed until a future trade deal had been negotiated. This highlighted the logistical nightmare she faces on so many fronts. She knows that business leaders want clarity on the transition by early next year at the latest. She dared to give a date when she expected future trade arrangements to be agreed. She stated with wild optimism that she looked to October next year. This is an alarmingly long wait for businesses who urgently want clarity about what form the transitional arrangements will take. As Philip Hammond has stated such arrangements are a “wasting asset”.
May appeared to face one of several dark choices: Offer clarity to business and agree a transitional phase before knowing what form the final trade agreement will take or plunge some businesses into crisis as lack of clarity becomes the overwhelming theme up until at least next October. Speaking to the Brexit Committee on Wednesday Davis addressed the dilemma. They plan to negotiate the transitional phase in the first three months of next year, long before the final trade arrangements are in place. This is sensible but it contradicts May, and does mean an ‘implementation’ phase is agreed before anyone knows what it is they will be implementing.
We know how May hopes to have her cake and eat it, still her basic position in the negotiations. She has noted that assurances about the UK paying the Brexit bill has created some goodwill in the EU. Again as Davis said openly in the Commons when explaining the relative lack of progress “it’s about the money…they’re holding out for more money”. In other words handing out more money stealthily will prove to be an option for May in an attempt to get an agreement even if this was not what Davis meant to imply.
May’s new negotiating ploy is also clear: “Give me a deal I can sell in the UK, not least to my party, or you get Boris Johnson”. Again this is not exactly the Lion roaring as some newspapers and senior Conservatives fantasise about, but it appears to be having some impact.
The December summit becomes pivotal at least for this early phase. Unusually for the ultra cautious May she has expressed optimism publicly about a breakthrough in that summit. Out of character she is playing up hopes. She cannot afford another holding statement after the December summit, even if her holding statements tell us more than we think they do.
She and others follow a pattern. Listen carefully. For twenty five years every step of the eternal Tory dance over Europe has been staged in full public view.
Steve Richards’ latest book ‘The Rise of the Outsiders’ is published by Atlantic.