Brexit — Looking Forward to 2017

In October, I wrote my first blog — “Brexit — A Way Forward”. I said that despite a position of apparent strength, the Government’s approach to Brexit had a number of key weaknesses which would become increasingly evident. As a result, I argued that there was a national imperative for the Government to “reset” its approach to Brexit. In particular, I advocated that the Government consider the following: the rebalancing of its prioritisation of immigration control versus the economy; much fuller engagement with Parliament; and, the recognition of EU citizens’ rights.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of my advice fell on arid, if not barren, ground.

The Government has remained intent on pursuing its net migration manifesto pledge. Although David Davis has been clear that no one “intends” for Brexit to harm the UK sectors that need European workers, he has also stated that immigration control is non-negotiable.

Greater engagement with Parliament has occurred but more as a result of the Government’s defensive manoeuvring than deliberate policy. Keir Starmer has led the cross party Brexit opposition and proved highly effective. Time will tell whether his hard won “plan” will have been a meaningful concession.

Mrs. May at least tried to settle the matter of UK/EU citizens’ rights but was reportedly firmly rebuffed by Mrs. Merkel. None of the parties involved have come out of this brief but painful skirmish with any great credit.

At the same time, a number of the factors that I had previously identified as weaknesses, have continued or worsened.

The divisions in Cabinet do not appear to have gone away. It seems that at least two Brexit factions are alive and well — the “Ideologues”, led by Messrs. Johnson and Fox and the “Pragmatists” championed by Mr. Hammond. David Davis seems to sit somewhere in the middle. And the Prime Minister? “Brexit means Brexit”.

In Europe, the EU has strengthened its opposition to a “soft” Brexit. The Foreign Secretary’s “have cake and eat it” strategy has not traveled well and the UK Government is perceived to be naive at best. The dismissive tone of Donald Tusk’s letter regarding citizens’ rights was noteworthy.

Although the economy has continued to perform well, the fall in value of the £ and related inflation concerns have become real and newsworthy issues. At the same time, the OBR’s forecasts for the Autumn Statement highlighted the potentially negative effects of Brexit on the UK economy, including the economic cost of reduced immigration.

Meanwhile, other problems have emerged.

The Government’s decision to appeal to the Supreme Court may have other repercussions. Even if the Government wins, its lawyers’ disavowal of the constitutional validity of the Sewel Convention has risked sweeping away years of devolution related political compromise in one court session.

If the Government loses, the least worst consequence would be putting a Bill through Parliament. Arguably, this might well have happened anyway. Any ruling that the devolved administrations must have a formal Brexit role would be a major issue for the Government’s Brexit approach.

Elsewhere, the Brexiteers outside of Government seem restless as they sense the possibility of their Brexit vision being compromised. Conservative MPs have taken to writing directly to Donald Tusk and preparing the rhetorical ground for a “clean” Brexit.  

It would of course be wrong to conclude that everything has gone against the Government.

The Conservative Party’s opinion polling remains at close to its historic high. Teresa May’s personal popularity is largely undiminished. The Richmond by-election result was a blow for the Conservatives but, for much of the country Brexit has not yet had much impact, either positive or negative.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has not covered itself with glory. As Keir Starmer forensically harries the Government, John McDonnell calls Brexit an “enormous opportunity”. This reflects, to put it kindly, a communications problem. More fundamentally, the “we demand a plan but will not block Article 50” position is one of dubious logic. And as for the opinion polling — to quote David Allen Greene (out of context), “Well”.

At the same time, the blurred shape of the Government’s Brexit position has begun to emerge from the “no running commentary” fog. There appears to have been a startling, if partial, outbreak of realism. For example, the Government seems to have accepted the notions of a transitional period and ongoing payments to the EU as at least possible negotiating elements.

As we look towards 2017, we can draw some forward looking conclusions from this complicated picture.

1- The Government’s objective to proceed smoothly to Article 50 notification is highly unlikely to happen. Either the Supreme Court will rule against the appellant, in which case a Bill will be required. Or, at a minimum, the Government will have to produce and debate its promised “plan”.

2- As the pressure mounts in the run-up to Article 50 notification, political opposition will increase. We can safely conclude that the various opposition factions will not be satisfied with the promised “plan”.

3- We can also expect that the elements of Brexit compromise the Government may pursue (e.g. immigration, ongoing payments and transition period) will be vigorously attacked by the more purist Brexiteers, who will increasingly agitate for a “clean” break. In this fractious environment, it is not unreasonable to imagine a cabinet resignation or two.

4- What will the general public make of it all? As noted above, opinion polling suggests that the public has not yet changed its Brexit view in any material way. Given the experience of this year, I’m not sure that any manner of Brexit related political back and forth will be especially impactful. This should not be a surprising conclusion. From a political perspective, there has been an unbroken continuum since the referendum — Brexit means Brexit — with no event yet material enough to change the status quo.

5- However, we can reasonably expect next year to be different. If the economic forecasts are to be believed, and we should at least expect them to be directionally correct, we can anticipate slower economic growth and the related impact on already strained public services. At the same time, the impact of the £’s decline on inflation will become more apparent in the shops with food and petrol prices especially affected.

6- As common sense dictates and polling reflects, we can and we should make the assumption that only a minority of the electorate will support policy decisions that make them poorer. As a result, it would be prudent to assume that changing economic circumstances will have an impact on the public’s opinion of Brexit.

7- We have only seen the bare bones of the EU’s negotiating strategy. In all of the criticism of the Government’s apparent lack of a plan, the EU’s position has been much less scrutinised. What is the EU’s principal objective? To secure an amicable and mutually beneficial “divorce” or to “punish” the UK as an example to others? We can hope for the former but the reality is that we don’t know. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the various European elections will affect the EU’s approach.

8- We can also expect the tone of political discourse to become even more fractious as the Brexit shadows lengthen. A New Year wish is for all parties, politicians on every side, newspaper editors, writers of blogs, all those tweeps, to think carefully about how they express themselves. Words matter.

In conclusion, we can expect 2017 to be another tumultuous and unpredictable year of Brexit. All parties are best advised to retain sufficient flexibility to respond effectively to those inevitable “events” and ever changing situations.

This small finish brings me neatly to Jolyon Maugham’s Article 50 revocability case in Ireland. “Brexit means Brexit” has been the dominant political reality since the referendum. As a result, the possibility of another dramatic change of course has not been sufficiently considered.

Don’t overly discount this scenario.


Author: Simeon Stylites

Sitting on his pillar, looking quizzically.

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