Henry Newman looks at Labour’s latest Brexit position on ConservativeHome this morning. As the new political year begins, what can be said of the Government’s?
In her speech to the Conservative conference almost a year ago, Theresa May set out the outline of a policy. Article 50 would be moved by the end of March. The Queen’s Speech would contain a Great Repeal Bill. The Prime Minister did not quite say that “Brexit means Brexit”, but the sum of her argument was that there will be a clean break. “It is not going to a ‘Norway model’. It’s not going to be a ‘Switzerland model’, she told her audience. “We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts…we are not leaving only to return to the European Court of Justice.”
It was thus evident that, under her plan, Britain would leave the Single Market, but May didn’t actually spell out the point. In her Lancaster House speech earlier this year, she did so (“what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the Single Market”), while also setting out ten priorities; floating “a phased process of implementation”; preparing the ground for a trade-off between payments to the EU and access to the Single Market (“we will not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget. There may be some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate”), and saying that that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”.
The most vague aspect of the speech was perhaps its stance on the Customs Union. “Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position.” The Conservative Manifesto put a little more flesh on these bones. “As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union”.
There is always more to be said, but these are the fundamentals, as set out. How have they stood the test of a year’s passage – and, more particularly, of an election that didn’t deliver May the bigger majority that she expected?
One can tick off developments that the Government didn’t expect, or glosses on these essentials. May lost in court and was forced to put Article 50 to Parliament fo a vote. The Great Repeal Bill’s title has shrunk: it will now simply be a withdrawal bill. There is far less stress on no deal being better than a bad deal: the phrase now rarely passes Ministers’ lips. Above all, there is no clarity on the length of the implementation period that the Government seeks – or on the timetable and strategy for reducing EU migration.
None the less, as one contemplates May’s two speeches, five pages of the Article 50 letter, two White Papers (see here and here), and eleven position papers later, it is hard to argue that the Government’s position on the basics has changed a great deal. One might claim, with some justice, that the Prime Minister proposes that Britain stay in the Customs Union during the transition, or as good as do so. Or one might assert, with less force, that she is now willing to compromise on the role of the European Court of Justice. But as Mark Wallace pointed out recently on this site, that would be to muddle ECJ jurisdiction with its possible involvement in some form of abritration (or the use of the EFTA court). No part of the negotiation is as sensitive to many Conservative MPs and most party members as ending ECJ jurisdiction, and both May and David Davis will be mindful of it.
As August draws to a close, one can’t help concluding that much of the summer frenzy about Ministerial differences or Brexit about-turns has been just so much hot air – whether one agrees with the Government’s negotiating position or not, or believes that it is adequately developed or not. The big exception is the lack of agreement on the length of any transition period. May will be well aware that this must be sorted by October’s conference.