Brexit

After resignations, amendments, votes, broken pairs, letters, a withdrawn letter and some on-off holiday plans, the government has survived until September. It can bask and stockpile in the safety of recess. Then it all begins again.

Mrs May will be hoping that her party returns from its summer break in a calmer mood. The fractious talk of sellouts and second referendums has left the parliamentary arithmetic for any outcome looking doubtful on paper, but many forget the withdrawal agreement was never going to contain the future relationship. She just needs enough on trade to justify its £39 billion price tag, with as little of the Irish ‘backstop’ as possible.

Something for our politicians to ponder at the beach while the Mays go walking.

‘Machinery of government’
Claims abounded that Dominic Raab had been sidelined, after a written statement on Tuesday about ‘a machinery of government change’. The Europe Unit at the Cabinet Office is taking full control of the Brexit negotiations, leaving DExEU to concentrate on domestic preparedness. This follows reports that Olly Robbins, the civil servant who runs the unit, had poached dozens of key staff from his former department when David Davis resigned.

For the first time, the PM will formally lead the negotiations, with the Brexit secretary deputising on her behalf. Sitting next to Robbins at a select committee hearing, Raab dismissed the whole thing as some “shifting of the Whitehall deckchairs”. It is rather more than that, but not what it first appears.

Robbins was already running the negotiations, with DExEU and its ministers left in the dark; a dysfunctional and unsustainable arrangement that contributed to the Chequers resignations. It had also reduced David Davis to an occasional visitor to Brussels. His successor has taken a pragmatic attitude, acknowledging the reality of the situation to play a meaningful role.

As an ex-FCO lawyer, Raab has a steely attention to detail that was alleged to be lacking at the upper ministerial reaches of DExEU. On the day of his appointment, it seems he agreed the transfer of staff to the Europe Unit in exchange for being present at all meetings between Robbins and Mrs May, and copied into all advice and correspondence. The new Brexit secretary has clearly resolved to work with the PM’s man, rather than in isolation, judging that the white paper is now the only way to advance the talks.

An unkind observer might call this pooling sovereignty for influence. Yet Raab has already spent more time in direct discussions with Michel Barnier this month than his predecessor managed all year. Arguably, as the suspicion aired by members of the select committee suggests, Robbins needs to work with a co-operative Leaver as Brexit secretary to be able to function behind the scenes. There could even be the makings of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ UK routine.

The prime minister might, without any design, have lucked upon some machinery that works.

Facilitation
This morning, another wave of overconfident commentary claims the Chequers deal (and subsequent white paper) is dead. Perhaps it is, but Michel Barnier’s comments hardly accomplish this by themselves. Yes, he was not encouraging. That isn’t his function as the commission’s chief negotiator, particularly when he still hopes to force the UK into a full customs union.

While his remark that the EU “cannot and will not delegate the application of its customs policy and rules, VAT and duty collection to a non-member” obviously referred to the Chequers plan for a facilitated customs arrangement, his rider “who would not be subject to the EU governance structures” leaves some room for movement. Barnier has form for tougher remarks at press conferences than in private. Intriguingly, British officials are mooting a possible September gathering of the EU27 in Salzburg to hear the UK’s case directly, bypassing the commission.

This explains Barnier’s insistence that “anyone who wants to find a sliver of difference between my mandate and what the heads of government say they want are wasting their time, quite frankly.” It was just a little intemperate.

Chequers was always designed to break the deadlock over the backstop, squaring December’s agreement with an independent UK trade policy and frictionless trade in goods. A customs union is politically impossible for the prime minister because of her party and previous commitments, but also because it would leave the UK subject to the EU’s policies and future agreements, without any say or ability to deploy trade remedies.

Europe’s heads of government are not bound by the theological scruples of Michel Barnier. For them, no customs union becomes a choice between Chequers-style pragmatism, fudging the withdrawal agreement or a new willingness to make MaxFac work at Dover and on the Irish border. Even Barnier recognises a need to “de-dramatise” the backstop.

Without movement, the default is no deal.

Sarah Jones
Managing director, public affairs
Sarah.Jones@fourcommunications.com