When Theresa May delivered her Florence Speech a fortnight ago, my first reaction was “Is that it?” The speech had to outline something on citizens rights, the financial settlement to leave the EU, and on the Northern Ireland border, yet – especially on the last of these – it offered very little. October’s European Council is to decide whether sufficient progress has been made on these three issues to then allow the Brexit negotiations to move on to the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU. With the European Parliament having already made the call that sufficient progress has not been made, I cannot see the summit in October deciding differently.
Speaking to people these past couple of days in Brussels, I sense the EU side is getting a bit edgy now – why can the UK side not see how little time is available, and get itself together? One quarter of the time allocated for the Article 50 process is behind us, and there is scant progress, they fret.
The answer, I think, is that the UK side is simply incapable of getting its act together.
Take what James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Minister, said at Tory Conference (reported in The New Statesman):
Brokenshire made clear that there would be no special status for Northern Ireland: it would leave the European customs union with the rest of the UK in March 2019. He also insisted the common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be maintained, that there would be no new barriers to crossing the Irish Sea, and no physical border in Ireland
These things, simultaneously, are impossible.
Or on industry sectors post-Brexit (reported in The Times):
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is pushing to take control of some industries in 2019, regardless of the transition period, but Amber Rudd, the home secretary, believes that this can be done only if the EU consents.
Some ministers believe that different industries can take different approaches, with the financial services sector securing a bespoke deal that would mean it continuing to enforce EU rules and lobbying Brussels to ensure that they remained favourable to the UK.
Delusional is how John Springford describes this, and I concur.
The problem is that no-one within government actually wants to solve any of these issues, because to decide means someone is going to lose, some downside of Brexit has to be made clear. To take a decision as to what the UK wants, and to then seek to achieve it in the negotiations, is beyond this government. Even DExEU’s Brexit papers take this approach, talking of menus of options, without any clarity as to which is desired. This is also why the government is refusing to release its Brexit impact assessments – it cannot dare be honest or clear about what is happening.
So what happens instead?
We are treated to rounds of briefing and counter briefing, and rumours of coups and resignations. The rest of The Times piece looks at speculation that ministers such as Andrea Leadsom might resign from May’s government, and that a leadership election pitting Johnson against Davis might then happen.
Ultimately all of this is a waste of time, because there is no consensus position on Brexit that actually commands a majority on the Tory+DUP benches, and there is no way that Johnson or Davis or anyone else could conjure one up. Ascribing the current problems to May’s weak leadership misses the point: there is no-one who could actually do any better.
If May (or whoever might follow her) tacks to the eurosceptic right, the pragmatists like Hammond and Rudd scream (and they have some backing from business), and the EU looks on incredulously. Seek a position more towards soft Brexit, or a long transition period, and the hardliners in the European Research Group hold the government to ransom.
So instead everyone in the government tries to prevaricate, to buy time, to hope that eventually some solution emerges from somewhere, or to dream that some new leader might be a way out of the conundrum. Although if you actually look at the options available all of that is just wishful thinking. A no-deal, crash-out Brexit then looms simply because the government cannot decide in favour of anything else in the scant little time available.