Theresa May definitely didn’t relaunch her premiership this week. She merely made a heavily-advertised speech that marked a sharp change in direction from what came before.
Mrs May called on Tuesday for cross-party co-operation on a range of issues, including on finding a good deal for Britain during Brexit negotiations. Tacitly acknowledging the changed circumstances her administration finds itself in following the election that left the Conservatives without a Parliamentary majority, the Prime Minister instead openly – very openly, since the speech had basically appeared in full in the weekend’s newspapers – asked her political opponents to work with her where they could achieve a “fairer” Britain.
What a heart-warming tale of political unity in pursuit of a common good you might think. Or, alternatively, what a cynical volte-face from the Prime Minister who called a snap election to, in the words of her chief cheerleader the Daily Mail, “crush the saboteurs”. Either way, the friendly request/desperate plea depending on your view has not been warmly welcomed by other party leaders – hardly surprising in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, but also unsurprising given other party leaders have memories stretching all the way back to a few weeks ago and recall Mrs May’s uncompromising phase.
This week marks Theresa May’s first anniversary of becoming Prime Minister, possibly her last such landmark. Egged on by her increasingly unhelpful supporters in the media, Mrs May, for reasons good and bad, spent the first ten months of that year implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) questioning the motives and patriotism of those who opposed her, particularly on Brexit. A chastening election result appears to have changed her mind. The problem for Mrs May is not just that nobody believes her, but nobody thinks she’ll be around long enough to bother working with her anyway.
The Chuka and Anna Show
One place where there was a heartening sign of bi-partisanship was the formation of a new All Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations. Co-Chaired by Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Conservatives’ Anna Soubry (as well as featuring senior representatives from all the other major parties), it has three declared priorities: to ensure the UK does not exit the EU without a formal deal; to ensure that all options are kept on the table as talks progress; and to ensure the "closest possible relationship" with the remaining 27 EU members after Brexit.
The undeclared priority is to turn itself into the most influential – and ideally sole – forum for channelling the energies of pro-Remain parliamentarians. In a Commons that has a broad Remain majority and no stable Government majority, the political cliché that organisation is key has never been truer. For thirty years Eurosceptics have, on the rare occasions when they have been able to organise properly, made life incredibly difficult for Governments, particularly weak ones – think back to John Major’s administration in the early 90s.
Of course, Eurosceptics often struggled to get things together; the result of vanity, huge egos and fundamental political disagreements. Surely problems that won’t afflict a group covering almost every single major political party and led by those shrinking violets, Mr Umunna and Ms Soubry.
Brexit in haste, repeal at leisure
On Thursday, the Government finally published its Repeal Bill. Formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill, the downgrading was inevitable due to Parliamentary convention on the name of legislation (it’s actually known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill) – but still seems oddly apposite.
Great or not, the Bill is a vital part of the process of the UK leaving the EU. It is intended to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act (hence the title), but also to incorporate all existing EU legislation into UK law. This is to ensure that there is legislative certainty for businesses and consumers when the UK does eventually depart in March 2019. The UK Parliament can then "amend, repeal and improve" the laws as necessary.
The Bill also contains provision for the use of statutory instruments (known as Henry VIII clauses) that will allow the Government to change certain provisions in EU law ahead of the transfer into UK law without full Parliamentary oversight. The Government has stressed that this is necessary because some EU law refers to EU institutions, such as the European Commission, or agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority – once the UK has exited the EU then these bodies will of course have no power in the UK. These proposed changes have sparked unease, however, amongst both Government and opposition politicians: whilst some fear that the UK Government will take the opportunity to quietly repeal legislation unpopular with many Conservatives (for example, on workers’ rights), others worry about the powers given to the Government with little Parliamentary scrutiny.
The Government must take these concerns into account, as it only has a slim working majority in Parliament. Indeed, outgoing Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has already promised that the process of getting the Bill through Parliament would be “hell”. This week simply marks the start of a protracted Parliamentary battle in both houses to pass the Repeal Bill, with debate expected to take up a considerable amount of time, and Government energy, during the autumn Parliamentary session beginning in October.
Another week, another foreign leader promising that the UK would be first in line for a big trade deal. At the G20 summit in Germany last week, Donald Trump – with typical Trumpian understatement - predicted that the UK and the US would sign “a very, very big deal, a very powerful deal” and what’s more it would be done “very, very quickly”.
This week it was the turn of the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to say that Australia would also move “as quickly as possible” to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK, that the Australians were “very keen” on.
Music to the ears of all Brexiteers. The free-traders love the idea of agreements with advanced economies around the world. The Empire nostalgics can wholly embrace the concept of dealing with former British colonies (albeit one of which was silly enough to declare independence all those years ago). And the Government can pick up on these commitments as evidence that there is indeed a post-Brexit plan and that any economic shock in the short term will be outweighed by longer term economic growth.
But there are so many potential problems with these deals that it is difficult to know where to start. The UK can’t formally begin to negotiate them until it leaves the EU, but even informal talks will likely be on hold until it is clear what sort of future relationship the UK and the EU will have. Free trade deals can also be agreed quickly or they can be agreed comprehensively; it is very difficult to do both.
But the biggest problem of all is that Britain needs a trade deal more than the US or Australia need one, and that means that any agreement struck will likely be on their terms – especially, in the case of the US, because the country’s head of state happens to not really believe in free trade agreements. The domestic political backlash against unequal bargains will be swift and unhappy (imagine British farmers complaining to their overwhelmingly Conservative MPs about having to compete against cheap American hormone-assisted beef imports). One for Theresa May’s successor to worry about in 2019 (?).
Who Runs Brexit?
A happy coincidence this week: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson answered departmental questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday morning before Brexit Secretary David Davis appeared before the House of Lords EU Committee on Tuesday afternoon – providing the perfect opportunity to judge Government unity, or otherwise, on Brexit.
Mr Johnson took the headlines by claiming in the Commons that the EU could “go whistle” if they demanded a hefty divorce bill, a turn of phrase that the Daily Express loved and Downing Street collectively rolled their eyes at. More annoying for the Government perhaps was Mr Johnson’s claim that they had made no plan for leaving the EU without a deal, something that directly contradicted the recent claim by David Davis that the Government did indeed have a plan in place. This substantial difference of opinion would suggest that one of these Secretaries of State is not quite telling the truth.
It also points to the fact that, four months after Article 50 was triggered, over a year after the referendum itself, there is renewed drift and division at the top of Government when it comes to Brexit policy. Mr Davis and Mr Johnson are two intensely ambitious politicians feeling and exploiting the draining away of Mrs May’s political capital. These are just the pro-Leave Cabinet Ministers; those Ministers who favoured Remain last year – with the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, being the most obvious example – are pushing for very different Brexit outcomes than first anticipated by Mrs May in her January Lancaster House speech.
And the Prime Minister herself? She clings to this speech, regardless of the difficulties so far in Brexit negotiations, the worsening UK economic situation and, most of all, her own weak position. No wonder her Ministers continue their own independent efforts to achieve the Brexit outcome they think best for the country – and best for their careers.