Brexit weekly: 5 things

Separating the crazy

Last week was a tough one for the Prime Minister. She had to replace her Home Secretary and couldn’t find agreement within Cabinet over customs union policy. And that was all before close of business on Wednesday.

So, Theresa May could be forgiven for hoping this week might have been a little quieter, and if nothing else an opportunity to capitalise on a better than expected performance for the Tories in local elections. No such chance.

Fresh from an appearance on Fox and Friends (recognising, correctly, the most effective means of communication with the American President is likely to be shouting into a TV camera), Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson decided to take his views directly to the people, announcing the PM’s preferred option of a ‘customs partnership’ was “crazy.” Which amounted to using a proverbial flamethrower on the principle of private Cabinet discussions and collective responsibility. As ever, Boris’ interventions need to be viewed through the dual prisms of principle and ambition – his friends say he’s not about to resign in protest over the customs union issue, while those less enamoured with the Foreign Secretary will inevitably see a further public intervention as him being ‘on manoeuvres’ and positioning himself for a possible leadership run.

The concept of a partnership was narrowly rejected by the Cabinet’s Brexit sub-committee last week, but Brexiteers fear it could be rebadged by Number 10 – perhaps prompting Boris’ intervention. The Foreign Secretary was enthusiastically cheered on by Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the whole saga again underlined the deep divisions within the Tory Party over how (and if) to leave the EU.

The Prime Minister has now split Cabinet into two working groups to consider the two options for a post-Brexit relationship. In one sense, that seems sensible – much like you would in primary school, split the kids up, only in this case have them determine the plausibility of a customs partnership and the so-called ‘max-fac’ respectively. But while further work to achieve something resembling consensus is doubtless necessary, the bottom line is the Cabinet is at risk of paralysis over a fundamental negotiating issue. Which is hardly ideal barely 10 months before Brexit day.

Parliament’s revolting

It’s like there’s something in the water in the Westminster bubble. The Cabinet can’t get on the same page over Brexit, and neither can Parliament.

The Government was expecting the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to have a difficult passage in the Lords. But with 14 defeats over amendments to the Bill to date, ministers are in risk of suffering more bloody noses than an opponent of Anthony Joshua.

The actions of peers have inevitably prompted demands from Brexiteers to reform the House of Lords, abolish the Upper Chamber entirely, and that unelected peers must respect ‘the will of the people.’ But reform of the Lords went nowhere when Nick Clegg pushed it, and don’t expect it to go anywhere now. There’s a degree of symbolism to the amendments posed by peers, which ultimately can be overturned when the Bill goes back to the Commons. The real significance is that they’re emboldening Remainers in the Lower House, and providing plenty of firepower for Labour if the Party wants to hold the minority government’s feet to the fire on issues like approval of a final deal or the rejection of a no-deal scenario.

And the troubles in Parliament don’t stop there. Commons’ business for the next fortnight made no mention of Brexit-related legislation. Labour has accused the Government of “effectively subverting democracy,” and senior Tories have admitted to the FT they’re fearful of bringing Brexit bills back to the House before the autumn because they expect the PM would be defeated.

With the clock ticking down, the seeming paralysis could be charitably described as unhelpful. Günther Oettinger, the EU budget commissioner, described Theresa May as “weak” this week. The PM needs to do something pretty significant to challenge that perception, which has very real consequences for her Cabinet’s ability to negotiate a meaningful deal.

The green and pleasant land

Michael Gove has had something of a renaissance over the last 18 months. From being unceremoniously kicked out of Cabinet when Theresa May succeeded David Cameron, he’s rehabilitated himself as an Environment Secretary unwilling to let the grass grow under his feet (pun definitely intended).

Gove’s Blue Planet-inspired war on plastics has been much applauded, so he’ll doubtless be a least a little narked that experts have this week described proposals for post-Brexit environmental laws as “disappointing.” Defra has launched a consultation on post-Brexit policy, the goal of which is ensure “core” environmental principles remain front and centre of British policy once we’ve left the EU. Central to the proposed Environmental Principles and Governance Bill (a name that does exactly what it says on the tin if you’ve ever heard one) is the creation of an independent body to hold ministers to account. Except the likes of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the WWF reckon ministers’ aspirations aren’t matched by the level of protection the planned body would provide.

Admittedly, the plans are very much in the proposal stage, and there’s an opportunity to strengthen the new oversight body. But the push-back isn’t great for Michael Gove, nor for a government that could do with a win. And given Defra is going to be the government department with perhaps the most to do post-Brexit, officials could do with getting this sorted ASAP.

Go sit on the naughty step

Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaigning organisation co-founded by former UKIP money man Arron Banks, was fined £70,000 this week and its chief executive referred to the Metropolitan Police after the Electoral Commission concluded the group had breached numerous electoral laws.

Among the conclusions was that Leave.EU had exceeded the statutory campaign spending limit and submitted incomplete and inaccurate spending returns. Banks has swiftly threatened legal action, also claiming the Electoral Commission’s decision represented a “politically motivated attack on Brexit.”

You may well ask why this matters two years on from the referendum. No, it doesn’t mean we’re going to have another vote, but the Electoral Commission’s announcement will further irritate Remainers who still feel dirty tricks played a big part of the collective decision to leave the EU. And it highlights the continuing divisions on the Europe issue – while encouraging those who are Remain inclined to fight on and fight harder, not necessarily for a second referendum but certainly for the best deal and scrutiny of what ministers come up with.

Which for Remainers means staying in the customs union. Who’d be Prime Minister?

Banking on a visa

If the customs issue was sorted tomorrow, there would still be the rather thorny issue of freedom of movement to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction.

Theresa May has always made clear that reducing immigration is pretty high on the priority list. But the number of areas in which there are cases being made for specific visas and special exemptions is growing. The NHS is one. And now the banking sector is another.

Global banks have appealed this week for a special work visa waiver after Brexit, which they claim is essential to retaining the City of London’s status as a (the?) global financial hub. A draft report to this end from TheCityUK has gone to Treasury and the Home Office this week, with the reminder that the City has to be able to attract and retain top-tier talent – not just from the UK but from overseas.

Time will tell whether the City is successful. But the report poses some challenging issues for ministers. Grant a waiver and the calls for exemptions elsewhere will increase. Deny the City access to the talent they demand, and at best the City might see some decline and at worst banks could start thinking whether the likes of Paris or Frankfurt might be more amenable to their needs. And that could have some pretty significant implications for future economic growth.