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The final curtain

Speeches on Brexit negotiating positions – at least from British ministers – seem to be like buses. You wait a while for one, then six come along at once.

Theresa May brings the curtain down today on the procession of senior Cabinet members who have tried to better establish the UK’s negotiating position in recent weeks, punctuated by the away-day at Chequers when the Cabinet committed to ‘managed divergence.’ The Prime Minister has continued that theme with the setting of five ‘tests’ for a future UK-EU relationship, pressing for the “deepest possible” free trade arrangement, but also making clear the UK will diverge with EU rules and regulations in some instances (but mirroring them in others).

To say it’s a tough speech for the PM would be an understatement. The EU has given every indication it’s disinclined to have the UK leave the club but cherry pick the best bits of what a future relationship should be. And, to potentially pose Mrs May some troubles at home, Cabinet allies such as Chris Grayling have been doing the media rounds stressing the UK can’t get everything it wants from Brexit talks.

At a fundamental and logical level, that’s entirely true of any negotiation, but it’s likely to cut thin ice (pun intended) with ardent Brexiteers with their own very clear red lines for a future deal. This speech isn’t make or break for Mrs May, but it has the potential to be a significant milestone. Getting it right – and what that looks like is still a tough question to answer – could make upcoming negotiations significantly easier. But there’s considerable risk the PM’s position puts her in the crosshairs of Brexiteers at home while winning few plaudits in Brussels.

A Corbyn in the ointment

If you’ve been struggling in recent months to articulate what Labour’s position on Brexit is, you’ve not been alone. Most of the shadow cabinet haven’t been able to either. That changed at least in part this week with a major speech from Jeremy Corbyn, who backed the UK remaining in a customs union. The announcement was well heralded on the likes of Marr by Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer – although with a little nuance Mr Corbyn committed his party to ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ customs union. Which begs the question (one Theresa May is very familiar with) as to what that relationship looks like in practice.

But while Mr Corbyn’s speech articulated but one part of the Brexit conundrum, its significance shouldn’t be understated. By committing to a customs union, Labour has a clear point of divergence with the Conservatives, or at least the Cabinet. From an immediate parliamentary perspective that could mean considerable difficulties for ministers if Remainers within the Tory ranks decide to work with the Opposition on the innumerate issues that will arise over the coming months. The announcement also demonstrates a recognition from Labour that sitting back and waiting for the Tories to potentially implode over Europe is not exactly a sound strategy, nor one that marks it out as a government in waiting. What will be interesting is whether this announcement is followed up with further clarification on other Brexit issues, and/or a push on domestic policy issues.

At least one side has a draft

While UK Cabinet ministers were attempting to find détente over sweetcorn soup at Chequers, the EU Commission has been drafting its proposal for the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.

The Commission published its proposal this week, setting out plans for the length of a transitional period, and the rights of citizens amongst other things. The proposal will now go to the EU’s Brexit Steering Group, then the EU Council and member states – with negotiations taking place on any/the many unresolved issues.

Unsurprisingly, the draft was not greeted with acclamation in the House of Commons. Largely because of one word. Ireland.

The Irish question remains perhaps the single most difficult issue to resolve. There seems to be a general consensus against a hard border, but no-one seems to have the answer to what a non-hard border that meets everyone’s needs looks like. The EU’s proposals would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU custom’s area if an alternative can’t be agreed. Theresa May is clear that such an arrangement would split the UK in two. Cue EU Council President Donald Tusk, this week negotiating Storm Emma to visit Downing Street, to invite the PM to come up with a better idea. Answers on a postcard…

Business backs Corbyn

OK, calm down. You have read that right.

Some businesses and representative bodies have been quite quiet on Brexit to date. The Confederation of British Industry hasn’t been among them.

The CBI this week came out in favour of the Labour leader following his endorsement of the UK remaining in a customs union. But, to prove you’ve not wandered into a parallel dimension, the CBI carefully qualified its support for Mr Corbyn by highlighting reservations about his wider business agenda, in which nationalisation is a primary feature.

Such is the weight of a statement of at least partial support that Evening Standard editor/Northern Powerhouse think tank leader/global lecturer… George Osborne popped up to declare that the Tories have gifted Labour an ‘open goal.’

What’s significant about this is that the CBI’s membership should be the Tories’ crowd, especially when the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell are calling for radical nationalisation. The fact business is getting behind Labour’s positioning with regards to a customs union should set off warning sirens in Downing Street and Whitehall. Cabinet ministers will have to reconcile their negotiations with the needs of business in the months ahead.

They’ll never take our freedom!

Actually, they might.

It’s emerged this week that the Westminster government will immediately launch a Supreme Court appeal if the Scottish Assembly votes for its own emergency powers over Brexit. The news followed the announcement of cross-party support in Edinburgh for an emergency bill that would enable the Assembly to take direct control of repatriating some EU legislation into Scottish law. Sources close to Attorney General Jeremy Wright have indicated an appeal could also be lodged if Wales moves for similar powers.

The immediate consequence is an additional headache the Westminster Cabinet didn’t need. Wales may have voted to leave the EU, but there’s a clear expectation the process is not Westminster or England-centric. Scotland, meanwhile, was perfectly happy in the EU, thank you very much. And Nicola Sturgeon has been very clear the Assembly will have no truck with a Brexit it feels leaves Scotland out of pocket.

But there are longer and deeper issues for the devolution agenda. Which isn’t to say we’re about to see another independence vote any time soon. But the situation is hardly conducive to good relations between Cardiff, Holyrood and Westminster.

For more information about Brexit and its implications, please visit our website.