Brexit weekly: 5 things

Symbolism rules in set-back for May

Nobody said it was easy. Less than one week after Theresa May secured the Government’s first major breakthrough in Brexit negotiations, things have come crashing down somewhat on the home front, as Dominic Grieve led a band of rebel MPs to a 309-305 victory in the Commons, securing the UK Parliament’s right to veto a final Brexit deal.

The ex-Attorney General’s amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill set in motion a frantic 24 hours in Westminster during which the “Tory Rebels” seeking a softer Brexit – or at least parliamentary oversight – were placed under significant pressure to remove their support for the amendment, while opposition MPs jumped at the opportunity to inflict damage on the Prime Minister and her Cabinet.

Reactions to the vote have predictably taken on un-subtle, partisan overtones. The Daily Mail sarcastically asked, “Proud of yourselves?” of the 11 Conservatives who voted against the Government, while Nigel Farage put his long career in politics to the very distant dark corner of his mind as he raged with “contempt (which) knows no bounds” at those “career politicians” who had so wronged him and the Great British Public. Meanwhile former Labour Cabinet Minister Lord Adonis claimed this was the “first step towards defeat of Brexit.”

So, does this vote really change everything? The short answer is no. A final say for Parliament on the Brexit deal is symbolically significant, but the likelihood of a legislative reversal of Brexit is slim-to-none. Both the Conservatives who joined Grieve’s bandwagon and the virtual left-wing (or is that left-of-centre?) bloc opposing most of the Government’s moves during this process comprise many a “career politician” who doesn’t want to think about a different line of work.

Any MPs – particularly of the red or blue variety – that get cold feet on Brexit will surely face the extreme ire of the 52%, if they somehow manage to escape unscathed from exchanges with party leaders who ultimately believe the referendum result is sacrosanct.

Mute the mutineers

Speaking of ire, events took a turn towards the head-scratchingly strange yesterday when Chief Conservative Whip, Julian Smith, was said to have threatened the Tory “mutineers” with legal action. According to the Guardian (and many other mainstream media outlets), the Government was seeking to button up allegations from MPs who were considering voting for the amendment, as an unnamed backbencher claimed the Whips had been “bullying junior MPs” in an attempt to change their minds.

The odd thing here is the sudden and extreme elevation of the threat from the whips’ office. Julian Smith and his predecessors have made a living by lobbying wavering backbenchers, sometimes with the carrot and often with the stick. This may have become more challenging in recent weeks and months as parliamentary scrutiny over bullying and harassment has been heightened. But the ‘speak and we’ll sue’ approach seems not only desperate and unnecessary, but also suggests an overarching lack of control on the party of Theresa May’s enforcers in the house.

Meanwhile, in Europe

The Prime Minister has sought to shake off her domestic challenges by flying to Brussels to rubber stamp the EU Withdrawal agreement, agreed in principle last Friday. While a formal agreement at this week’s EU Summit should present the perception of further progress – and perhaps allow the Government to regain some lost ground – the EU will also ask the UK to politely leave the room while it discusses guidelines for trade talks and the transition period.

EU Observer reports that European diplomats will finalise guidelines for talks on the future relationship in March, and says that detailed discussions over a trade deal are likely to get underway in April. It is possible these discussions will follow an agreement on a transition deal, but the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, has insisted that the European Parliament will not agree to a transition period without more clarity from the UK Government on how it imagines future relations, Weber said of the UK negotiating team, “I have no idea what they want to achieve”. Whether or not this is simply posturing from the European Parliament, April appears a long way away, and smooth sailing isn’t exactly a given up until that point.

Upon further review

Theresa May will have been proud to have secured a deal for EU citizens’ rights in the UK last week, and understandably so: it may become one of the most notable achievements of her premiership. But much of the reporting on last week’s withdrawal agreement oversimplified the impact of the deal. The BBC plainly asserted the rights of EU citizens in the UK “will be protected” after Brexit, and added that they will not only have the option to stay in the UK, but will also enjoy, “equal access to social security, health care, education and employment.”

However, the official joint report from negotiations confirms that there are indeed conditions “for acquiring the right of residence”, which align with existing requirements for EEA citizens within the EU. This will likely include an application process for EU citizens who have been living in the UK for less than five years, to prove they “have sufficient resources… not to become a burden on the social assistance system of the host Member State.”

Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis moved to offer reassurance this week by saying the Government is creating a very simple application process for those who have been in the country for at least five years, where “somebody spends literally a few minutes online and, within a couple of weeks, your settled status is dealt with and granted.” The Migration Observatory has responded by warning of issues for hundreds of thousands of EU citizens who can’t prove their length of stay in the UK, and for elderly people living in relative poverty who may struggle to communicate in English and show signs of self-sufficiency.

While the Government has helpfully sought to reassure those Europeans who meet the five-year ‘threshold’ of acquiring Britishness, the criteria upon which those below this line will be judged remains unclear and there are continuing concerns around the Home Office’s capacity to handle the massive influx of applications starting from next year. It looks as though we’ll just have to wait and see how this goes.

What to do in DExEU?

What is everyone doing in DexEU? Despite the great migration of hundreds of Britain’s civil servants into the all-encompassing Department for Exiting the EU, figures released by the Institute for Government today reveal that DExEU has failed to respond to more than six out of ten freedom of information requests. This gives the Department the worst annual record for secrecy in Whitehall, and comes hot on the heels of David Davis’ bizarre admission that Brexit impact assessments do not exist.

There are obviously many hardworking and dedicated public servants muddling through the mire of Brexit, and there’s an extent to which all this secrecy makes sense: you know what they say about negotiating in public (they say that it’s bad). Also, the IFG loses me with its frustration over the Department’s alleged, “disregard for the principle of making decisions based on thorough evidence and analysis.” It’s as if they’ve forgotten that we’ve all had enough of experts.