Brexit weekly: 5 things

Softening up?

In comments that came as something of a bolt from the blue, Brexit Secretary David Davis admitted this week that the UK could pay for continued access to the Single Market even after leaving the European Union.

Mr Davis contextualised his thoughts as an effort to prevent a labour or skills shortage. The suggestion was welcomed by Cabinet colleagues – Philip Hammond said it was sensible to consider the possibility – without being confirmed by Downing Street. Yet, while a surprising omission from an arch-Eurosceptic like Mr Davis, the proposals/suggestion demonstrates the importance of the EU market to Britain, and the difficulties that trade barriers post-Brexit could cause. Faced with the potential a loss of trade, labour and skills, the Government is potentially considering a softer negotiating stance – taking the view that an annual fee for Single Market access could be a price worth paying.

Whether the idea is able to win universal support across the Cabinet, however, remains to be seen.

Coming in droves

The Office of National Statistics published new figures for immigration to the UK this week – concluding the numbers of people coming to Britain has hit a record high.

The ONS found that 650,000 people moved to the UK in the year to June – up 11,000 on last year and meaning the net migration figure (also accounting for emigration levels) is 335,000. In what will have been uncomfortable reading for ministers, that’s more than three times the official target.

The figures show a pre-referendum surge of people seeking to move to the UK, while the impact of the referendum result won’t be truly known until figures for the second half of the year are published in a few months’ time. Nevertheless, the ONS findings leave the Government’s net migration target in tatters, and could influence the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit negotiations – notably over the free movement of people, which she’s intimated could be a red line.

Let them eat cake?

The Government had to quickly distance itself from suggestions over its Brexit negotiating position this week, after an aide to Mark Field was photographed leaving a meeting with clearly readable notes on possible terms of a deal with the EU and individual Member States.

The note suggested the French would be “the most difficult” during the negotiations, while it would be “relatively straightforward” to achieve a deal on manufacturing but harder to reach an agreement on services. Most notably, the handwritten minutes suggested UK access to the Single Market was “unlikely”, but that the negotiating positon should be “have your cake and eat it”.

Business Secretary Greg Clark insisted he did not recognise the notes as having any bearing on a British negotiating position, but the suggestions prompted further conjecture of a ‘hard’ Brexit – while inadvertently validating the Prime Minister’s penchant for secrecy over the UK’s plans.

Deal or no deal

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has rejected any possibility of a separate Brexit deal for Scotland, insisting First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is “grasping at straws”.

Speaking during a trip to Edinburgh, the Chancellor ruled out any special arrangements for Scotland on training and immigration, arguing Scotland would be disadvantaged by having different rules to the rest of the UK. Mrs Sturgeon has been busy visiting European capitals in recent weeks, in an effort to win support for a separate deal for Scotland, which voted to remain in the European Union.

While Mr Hammond insisted a UK deal would be reached “with Scottish Government input”, the episode underlines tensions between Westminster and the devolved institutions. Meanwhile, a YouGov poll for The Times this week found that only 22 percent of respondents thought a special deal was achievable and split opinion over Mrs Sturgeon’s efforts (42 percent in favour 41 percent opposed).

We’re back!

In a stunning electoral upset, the Liberal Democrats overturned a 23,000 majority to depose Zac Goldsmith and take the seat of Richmond Park in a by-election. The ballot was called by Goldsmith, who resigned from the Conservative Party and ran as an independent, after the Government indicated a preference for a third runway at Heathrow.

Newly elected MP Sarah Olney was quick to claim the vote as a victory for those opposed to a ‘hard’ Brexit, with Tim Farron claiming the win marked a resurrection of the Lib Dems.

European Parliament chief negotiator Guy Vehofstadt was also quick to congratulate Mrs Olney on her victory, prompting fury amongst Leave campaigners such as Iain Duncan Smith.