Speaking on Tuesday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she hoped that “in the next few weeks we will be able to give some clarity” on Brexit. Her comments were shortly contradicted by the Prime Minister’s spokesman who said the PM has been “providing clarity throughout this process.” This was just one of many Government clarifications that dominated the Week in Westminster.
It was supposed to be a significant week for Brexit, with EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier arriving in London on Monday for talks with David Davis and with two Brexit Cabinet sub-committee meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, presumably bringing some clarity to the next phase of negotiations.
However, before the week could even get underway, there was more confusion on Brexit. On Sunday, Amber Rudd and Dominic Raab contradicted each other on the UK’s customs relationship with the EU, forcing Number 10 to issue a clarification on the Government’s customs policy just hours before Barnier arrived. While the clarification that “it is not our policy to be in the customs union. It is not our policy to be in a customs union,” brought relief for Brexit supporting MPs, it did little to actually clarify what the Government’s position is.
The much-hyped Brexit Cabinet sub-committees likewise failed to provide greater clarity on the Government’s position, with a source for the Times noting that at Wednesday’s meeting “no vote was taken and Mrs May herself did not express a view."
Beyond Brexit, the week has not been much better for the Government. On Tuesday, Mrs May was forced to issue a clarification of a different type. She submitted a written statement to clarify comments made during Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 January, in which she used non-comparable figures in criticising hospital waiting times in Wales. Her statement came only after the UK Statistics Authority weighed in, following a written complaint from Wales’ First Minister Carwyn Jones on the matter. Although it was overshadowed in the press by Brexit, her statement should not be overlooked. Health in Wales continues to be a political flashpoint. This sort of correction will make it more difficult for the PM to use Wales as a rebuttal in future.
The NHS took centre stage again on Thursday afternoon, when Stephen Barclay responded to the Kirkup Report on the failings of Liverpool Community Health Trust. The report concluded the Trust’s prioritisation of deep, unrealistic cost improving savings in a bid for foundation trust status led to the appalling staff treatment, serious care failings and multiple cases of patient harm found. While the Minister committed to accepting all recommendations made by the report, MPs from across the House questioned how the government would guarantee future trusts did not prioritise cost-cutting over patient care.
Looking ahead to next week, with Parliament in recess, it is likely the NHS, winter crisis and Brexit will continue to grab headlines. Boris Johnson is scheduled to give a speech on Wednesday making the case for a ‘liberal Brexit’. Will this in turn see next week dominated by compromise rather than contradictions and clarifications? It seems unlikely, but you never know.