The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, touched down in London this week declaring there was ‘not a minute to lose’ before meeting Theresa May and David Davis for an early lunch and then heading off to a meeting with Labour’s Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and Shadow Foreign and Brexit Secretaries, Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. His visit comes in a week when Downing Street ‘categorically’ insisted that Britain will leave the Customs Union – seen by some as a necessary statement to quell reports that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was seeking to keep as many of the current arrangements in place as possible. Barnier faced some criticism on the continent that he and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were less well-prepared for negotiations than first thought. With Juncker’s declaration that he will not stand for a second term as Commission President, there have been suggestions in some quarters that Barnier may be eyeing the role, having stood unsuccessfully against Juncker last time around, with others questioning whether his profile-raising jetsetting tours are indeed an indication that he is ready to run again. Barnier’s push for urgency on the negotiations could be seen as his attempt to garner a track record to be able to stand on, or potentially be a ploy to rush Theresa May, who during her tenure as Home Secretary earned a reputation for being more of a ‘submarine’ politician. Equally, it could be a way of trying to find agreement before warring factions – or the DUP – have the opportunity to exert influence.
Former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister Nick Timothy wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph this week condemning George Soros – the man who ‘broke the Bank of England’ – as one of three senior figures financially backing Best for Britain, a remain-supporting campaign group that aims to bring about a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Timothy suggests that this campaign will attempt to recruit Conservative Party donors in an attempt to undermine the premiership of his old boss, Theresa May and potentially force a leadership election. A purported leaked document suggests that the campaign would seek to ‘target’ MPs and ‘convince them to vote against the final Brexit deal to trigger another referendum or General Election’. Interestingly, this is exactly the same strategy some remain groups had previously criticised Brexit-supporting campaigns for doing. Soros’s intervention will no doubt be welcomed by those who are holding out hope for a second referendum on the basis that this could indeed force the PM into triggering either a second vote or parliamentary approval of any final deal, but the salient question is whether Conservative MPs would be willing to upset the applecart, with many more risk averse since last year’s election result.
A Customised Threat
Remain-backing Conservative MP, Anna Soubry made herself available for interviews this week to press the PM to sack ‘hardline Brexiteers’, saying it was time May ‘slung ‘em out’, whilst also stating she would leave the Conservative Party herself were Boris Johnson, or others on the Brexit-supporting wing of the Party to be elected as a future Conservative leader. Soubry also discussed her opposition to leaving the Single Market and Customs Union and highlighted the potential of her leaving the Conservatives to ‘form some new alliance’. Conservative activists and colleagues were quick to reprimand Soubry, with many highlighting that her constituents actually opted to leave and others hoping she might decide to do the same. Andrew Pierce reported that one colleague suggested: ‘She can always stand as Labour MP for Brussels’. There have been reports that May is considering the possibility of taking back formal control over customs, whilst setting up a process that would align the UK informally to the EU’s Customs Union, but it remains to be seen whether this attempt to pacify both sides of the argument will succeed or ostracise both, with remainers largely wanting to stay in the customs union and many brexiteers advocating an independent and competitive trade policy.
Forecasts Predict Downturn
Estimates by Government officials predicted that the UK’s economy may slow down growth in the immediate upshot to Brexit. The forecasts, seen by MPs, predict that the North East and West Midlands would see the biggest decline, with London relatively unscathed and faring best of all regions. Many commentators were quick to point out that Leave-supporting areas may, in fact, take the hardest economic hit, with Evening Standard editor and former Chancellor George Osborne appearing to gloat at the findings, tweeting them with the label: ‘an economy that works for everyone’ – a clear swipe at the PM’s economic slogan. Others have labelled the report as inaccurate, with the Economists for Free Trade Group calling it ‘a continuation of Project Fear’ and Chair of the influential backbench European Research Group of MPs, Jacob Rees-Mogg, accusing Treasury officials of ‘fiddling the figures’. This is indicative of tensions between some ministers and the civil service following on from last week’s DExEU questions, where Minister Steve Baker suggested this was certainly something he was aware of. Crucially, the Government has said that these forecasts are only preliminary and do not measure the impact of Theresa May’s preferred option of a bespoke trade agreement, which would render these forecasts somewhat meaningless.
There have been reports this week that Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system may not be decided by the time the UK leaves. Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has declared it ‘likely’ that a blueprint will be published before the UK leaves, but interestingly she has indicated that the implementation period of two years after Britain leaves the EU has decreased the ‘urgency’ of a new immigration system being put into place. This may upset some Conservative backbenchers, many of whom see Rudd as being a potential future leadership contender who would place herself firmly on the Hammondesque ‘Soft Brexit’ wing of the Party and touted by some as the ‘Anybody but Mo or Jo’ candidate. But this also gives an indication as to the sort of future demographic Rudd may seek to appeal to, having not yet delivered on her predecessor’s pledge to cut immigration to ‘the tens of thousands’, despite this being cited as a key reason why many, including activists in her own party, voted to leave. Whilst Rudd is a popular figure amongst some within the Conservative Party, she would need to justify to the small selectorate of MPs how viable a leader with a majority going into the next general election of 346 in their own seat would be in any future leadership contest.