Brexit weekly: 5 things

The new enemy of the people?

The Daily Mail will soon have a new editor, with long-serving chief Paul Dacre standing down later this year after 26 years in post. The longest serving editor on Fleet Street, Dacre has been the archetypal Marmite figure, with his approach and the paper’s editorial positioning and reporting style welcomed by some and roundly criticised by others. His replacement (no, it’s not George Osborne) will be current Mail on Sunday Editor Geordie Greig, reportedly a friend of the Rothmere family (which owns the paper) and well-liked by moderate Conservatives.

The appointment is significant as Greig is – believe it or not – an “arch-remainer”, having surprisingly declared the Sunday sister paper’s support for a remain vote in the days leading up to the 2016 election. The Daily Mail has been a go to source of re-affirmation for staunch Eurosceptics, perhaps most notably printing the pictures of the High Court judges in 2016 who ruled in favour of a parliamentary vote on Brexit under the banner heading ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.

Prominent remain campaigner Lord Adonis claimed upon hearing the news that this was “a revolution in the British media & by far the most important political story of the week” (could be…); that the shift reflected a move in public opinion (dubious); and that it was “very likely we will now stop Brexit” (pump the breaks, Lord A).

As for Dacre, he is the most polarising of polarising figures, labelled “the greatest editor of his generation,” and a man who “has given a voice to the voiceless” by the Lord Rothmere, while being dubbed perhaps “the most dangerous man in Britain” by Guardian columnist Andy Beckett in 2007. Well-known for the influence he wielded over British politicians, striking fear into the hearts of Prime Ministers willing to oblige with special treatment, he certainly fulfilled his task to “give (Mail) readers a daily hate.” I’ll let readers of this piece decide if that will be missed.

Speaking of enemies…

Boris Johnson is in the news again for the wrong reasons. The Foreign Secretary was recorded criticising Chancellor Philip Hammond and his “wet” staff at the Treasury, a.k.a “the heart of remain” and pledging to “take the fight to the enemy” to ensure Brexit still means Brexit. The recordings come from a private dinner the Foreign Secretary attended with Conservative Party activists, at which Johnson spoke of the need for the Prime Minister to be “much more combative” with Brussels.

The Foreign Secretary expressed his frustration with ‘the establishment’ – apparently including the BBC and Confederation of British Industry – which he said is trying to push for “a Brexit that does as little change as possible”. His criticism of the Treasury was particularly telling, claiming that Hammond’s civil servants were excessively concerned by the potential for short-term economic disruption and waylaid by negative assumptions, saying that “project fear is really working on them… they’re terrified of this nonsense.”

Johnson also left no doubt as to who he’d prefer to be running the show. He called the notion of Donald Trump leading the talks “a fantastic idea”, adding that while the Trump’s predicted approach would likely cause chaos, “you might get somewhere.”

The Foreign Secretary’s comments present an unwanted headache for the Prime Minister, who’s currently on her way to the G7 summit, where she’ll allegedly be snubbed by Trump. In some ways, Boris’ latest intervention isn’t revelatory. What else would you expect him to say in a room of like-minded Tory supporters and donors? Boris’ friends might say the dinner was under Chatham House rules, but critics will claim there’s more than a whiff of the Foreign Secretary being back “on manoeuvres” for the leadership. Ultimately, it’s a stark reminder of the position the PM is in, as despite this latest transgression, there’s no prospect of Boris being given his marching orders.

Last days of Davis?

The Foreign Secretary’s less-than-loyal comments about The PM and Chancellor came less than a day after his counterpart in charge of the Brexit Department was reportedly urged not to resign over his opposition to the new “backstop agreement” reached within the UK government this week. David Davis held ‘crunch’ talks with the Prime Minister on Thursday to ensure the inclusion of an “expected” end date of 2021 for the proposed plan, eventually reaching a compromise with Theresa May over the wording. The backstop plan seeks to address the border issue on the island of Ireland, with the UK set to agree a temporary customs arrangement with the EU after Brexit, which will involve the elimination of “tariffs, quotas, rules of origin and customs processes including declarations on all UK-EU trade.”

Reports emerged on earlier on Thursday that Davis had been so unhappy with the lack of clarity on a backstop end-date that he was considering stepping down. The former Brexit minister, David Jones, leapt to his defence, saying that, “to contemplate these negotiations continuing without David Davis would be deeply upsetting and deeply dangerous for the country.”

The risk of revolt from May’s Brexit secretary appears to have subsided for now, but this week’s temporary impasse has revealed greater tensions between the PM and her cabinet secretaries, further calling into question her authority ahead of key votes on the withdrawal bill next week and the next round of negotiations in Brussels later this month.

So much for optimism

The CBI has this week warned of a growth downshift for the UK economy due to lingering uncertainty over the impact of Brexit and the nature of the future UK-EU relationship. The prominent employer’s association of aforementioned “establishment” fame has cut its GDP growth forecasts slightly to 1.4%, down from the 1.8% figure achieved last year, lagging behind the projected growth of the Eurozone (2.2%) and the United States (2.8%).

While the pessimistic outlook speaks to the volatility of market confidence during Brexit negotiations, it also highlights the general volatility of GDP growth forecasts by their very nature. Eight weeks ago, the British Institute of Directors released a poll showing the strongest level of economic confidence among large British business leaders since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017. CBI’s chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith said, “the transition deal in March was a huge step forward,” but suggested this month’s gloomy forecasts have come about because, “we just haven’t had enough clarity on the customs arrangements and access to the single market” after 2020.

I never said that!

Fears that Italy will follow the UK’s lead to become the second major economy to break from the EU seem to be subsiding in the days following the formation of an unlikely Eurosceptic government. The new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told his parliament this week that, “leaving the euro has never been considered and it is not being considered.”

The ruling coalition’s first choice for economy minister, Paolo Savona, had his appointment vetoed by Italian President Sergio Mattarella and the renewed ‘commitment’ to the Euro seems to be favoured by the electorate with a poll showing 49% of Italians would like to remain within the single currency, against 29% wishing to leave.

Leader of the League, Luigi Di Maio, and Five Star chief Matteo Salvini both railed against the Euro and EU establishment during May’s election campaign. But their efforts to at least break from the Eurozone have been hampered by declining support even amongst their own followers, with only a slim majority of Five Star voters still backing an exit.