Welcome to ICG’s Brexit Update, bringing you news and analysis as the UK leaves the European Union. ICG is becoming part of Four Communications – one of the biggest public affairs agencies in London. Get in touch to find out more.
It’s been quite the week for the Prime Minister. The first Marr interview of the year. Launching a new Industrial Strategy intended to keep the economy afloat after leaving the Single Market. A lost battle in the Supreme Court, forcing the Government to legislate to leave the EU. A lost battle with her own backbenchers, requiring her to publish a White Paper on the Government’s negotiating strategy. Then on top of it all, it’s revealed a nuclear submarine accidentally aimed a missile at the Florida Keys just days before the first meeting with a mercurial new President. So why is Theresa May feeling so confident?
The answer is simple. Amid all the chaos, the Prime Minister has got everything she wanted. Pressure from backbenchers might have caused the Civil Service a few sleepless nights turning May’s ‘Brexit Plan’ speech into a policy paper but the path to triggering Article 50 and the UK’s exit from the European Union seems clear. Her Majesty’s Official Opposition will likely support the Government but not without starting another civil war in the process. May has won, for now, her battle to make controlling immigration the centrepiece of her new constitutional settlement. From the burning wreckage of 2016, Theresa May has walked away not only unscathed but strengthened.
Of course the road to Brexit will not run straight and in many ways the real work is only just beginning. May now faces two sets of negotiations – one with the remainder of the EU, and the other with Parliament and the British public.
The Bill the Government published yesterday is just 137 words long. By the time MPs and Lords are finished with it, it might be quite a bit longer. Labour and the SNP are gearing up to publish a series of amendments seeking guarantees on a range of issues, including the single market, workers’ rights and the future of EU nationals living in the UK. That much is unsurprising. The real question is whether the opposition parties can convince recalcitrant pro-Remain Tories like Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Nicky Morgan to support any of them. May’s majority remains vanishingly small and even the prospect of a backbench rebellion can force a climb down. The agreement to publish a White Paper is a case in point. May only agreed to do it after it looked like she would lose a vote in the Commons forcing her to. How much more can the Government be pushed into conceding before it can trigger Article 50?
It’s not just Westminster that will prove problematic. The Supreme Court might have ruled that Westminster doesn’t need the consent of the devolved administrations to start the Brexit process but Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont aren’t done yet. Northern Ireland could be the trickiest part of the negotiation. Not only does it share the UK’s only land border with the EU, many argue that the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on our membership of the Union. With the future of power sharing in Belfast hanging by an increasingly thin thread, a poorly-handled Brexit could see the region plummet back into the political abyss.
In Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon will take heart from the decision that Holyrood will have to vote on the Great Repeal Bill at the end of the Brexit process but a “no” vote from MSPs could trigger a constitutional crisis. May might ask Westminster to overrule Holyrood; Sturgeon and the SNP will see this as an affront to devolution. Could such an impasse lead to yet another vote on Scottish independence?
Out of the frying pan…
While some MPs focus on Article 50, others are starting to realise just how much of a challenge Brexit will be. Members of the Health Select Committee accused the Government of “giving up without a fight” on the UK continuing to be a part of the European Medicines Agency after Jeremy Hunt admitted the UK could face long delays to access new drugs. The EMA is headquartered in London, putting 800 jobs at risk if we withdraw.
This argument will not be unusual. The UK is a member of more than 40 pan-European agencies, which means that similar battles are looming on everything from atomic energy to food regulation to financial services. Most of these fights are unlikely to create national headlines but they do show the myriad of partnerships, deals and polices that the UK will have to unpick over the next 26 months. With the Government seemingly unwilling to try and retain membership of these EU bodies, Whitehall will have to adopt their functions itself. It might turn out that Brexit doesn’t just mean Brexit – it might mean “a massively expanded role for central Government” as well.
…but Labour’s in the fire
Europe has always been seen as the Conservatives’ nightmare. Despite this, it was grimly predictable that the modern day Labour Party would be the one to collapse over the Brexit vote. Jeremy Corbyn has imposed a three-line whip demanding his MPs vote in favour of Article 50. Two of his whips will defy him. Two frontbenchers have resigned already. Corbyn is facing a leadership crisis, just four months after the last one.
It’s easy to see why Labour MPs are so divided over the issue. Labour constituencies are sharply split between those that voted Leave and those that voted Remain. The party is 16 points behind in the polls and two MPs have already jumped ship rather than face another general election. Any issue that further divides an MP from their community could prove electorally fatal. Despite the best efforts of Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, Labour’s unflinching commitment to naval gazing continues to hamper Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Government and its Brexit plans.
Week in Quotes
“Sometimes, opposites attract” – Theresa May on her new friendship with Donald Trump.
“Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to note that my recently published memoirs are cited with approval in paragraph 195 of the judgment?” – Ken Clarke, after the Supreme Court helped promote his autobiography.
“I have always been clear – I do not represent Westminster in Hampstead and Kilburn, I represent Hampstead and Kilburn in Westminster. I feel that the most effective place for me to counter Theresa May’s hard Brexit is from the backbenches.” – Labour MP Tulip Siddiq resigns from Corbyn’s front bench.