David Davis sought to reassure Britain’s European partners this week with a typically unique turn of phrase, promising the Government was not planning to deliver a “Mad Max-style” dystopia in the Brexit process. The Brexit Secretary asked for trust to be placed in him and the British government, who would not seek to fundamentally undermine EU standards in trade, labour and the environment. An emphasis on trust, rather than policy substance, was the key component of Davis’ speech. Convinced that Britain and the EU can maintain a much deeper and more comprehensive trading relationship than under an ordinary free trade agreement, Britain hopes to maintain frictionless trade, but without the UK being subject to the enforcement mechanisms of the European Court of Justice or the Commission. The speech is unlikely to change much in the negotiation considering the lack of detail on how such a close trading relationship should be governed, and if the UK seeks full access to the EU Single Market without being accountable to any of the EU institutions – a suggestion that may cut little ice amongst the EU27.
Theresa May was seeking sign-off from her Brexit war cabinet of senior ministers on her Brexit policy and strategy moving forward at a summit at the Prime Minister’s country estate Chequers this week. In an eight-hour session, attendees debated the content of the PM’s big speech next week (the final one in a series of addresses from senior ministers), setting out details of life outside of the EU. Their most important task was to sketch out the balance between regulatory matching the EU to ensure frictionless trade and divergence to enjoy the promised freedoms of Brexit. The Cabinet’s solution seems to seek regulatory alignment on goods and divergence on services, a compromise acknowledging that frictionless trade is easier if Britain closely matches EU regulation, whilst still hoping for Britain’s service economy to go global. How well this “best of both worlds” solution will go down with European partners remains to be seen.
Is it finally Brexit crunch time for Labour?
Since the early hours of the 24th June 2016, the Labour Party has been engaged in bitter infighting over its own Brexit position. As some might remember, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – a veteran Eurosceptic of the left – advocated triggering Article 50 and starting the process of leaving the EU immediately in his first broadcast interview after the Leave-campaign emerged victorious. Since then, a lot has happened: a leadership challenge, the set-up of multiple internal campaigns to advocate for Single Market membership and the Free Movement of People, and a better-than-expected snap election result won on the back of the “constructive ambiguity” policy championed by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer; but it increasingly looks like it is time’s up for Labour and they have to come off the fence when it comes to Brexit.
Trailing a big Corbyn speech on Brexit scheduled for next Monday, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke at the Resolution Foundation on Thursday, declaring that Labour’s Brexit policy has been “evolving” in recent weeks. Hinting at Labour backing for an amendment tabled by rebel Tories to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill to keep the option of ‘a’ customs union on the table, McDonnell said that the Conservatives needed to rethink their current strategy. Whilst McDonnell voiced support for ’a’ (but not ‘the’) customs union to help solve issues around the Northern Irish border, he declared Labour was not ready to reopen the debate on Single Market membership – something that will upset some grassroot campaigners who still believe that the leadership duo’s socialist ideology stands in the way of the best deal for Britain.
The wheels of history are turning
We all remember Vote Leave’s infamous “£350m for the NHS” bus (a photo shoot that remains synonymous with Boris Johnson to this day) – and it now looks as if Remainers have taken a page out of their playbook: Anti-Brexit campaigners have relaunched the fiery red bus, only this time it’s covered in warnings that the cost of Brexit will be £2,000m per week. The crowdfunded project will tour for eight days, making 33 stops across the country. We hear they even have a Boris impersonator on board.
The stunt won’t force any radical change of direction within government – indeed in the short-terms its greatest success is likely to be irking Brexiteers. But in the broader context, bringing back the bus is a reminder that the Remain camp has no intention of giving up the fight – pushing for a second referendum at most, but the greatest level of scrutiny and public opportunity to agree or disagree to a deal at worst.
Meanwhile, on the continent…
In the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed by some parts of the media as the last bastion of liberal leadership. But nothing has been quite the same since Mrs Merkel suffered a disappointing election result in September 2017, which left her unable to form a government. Following the break-up of coalition talks between her Conservative CDU/CSU, the Green Party and the liberal FDP, negotiations for a ‘Grand Coalition’ with the Social Democratic SPD were attempted. After weeks of talks, the leadership of the SPD and CDU/CSU has come to an agreement – but it might well still be stopped in its tracks. This week, the SPD is putting the coalition agreement to an all-party membership vote, and if the vote fails, the Party cannot take up a seat at the governing table. Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the SPD’s youth wing Jusos, has spent the last weeks touring town halls and television studios to bang the drum for his #NoGroKo movement, signing up new, young members along the way. In light of horrifying poll results which put the SPD neck-to-neck with the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) the Jusos might hope for a Corbyn-style revolution in their party, shifting the political consensus to the left and rebuilding from opposition. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel has announced Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the serving Minister President of Saarland, as the new CDU General Secretary – no matter the outcome of the SPD’s vote, Merkel’s leadership transition is in full swing.