Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Tussles in Brussels: The right hook that could put Britain on the canvas

Britain on the ropes or a KO for the EU? - Credit: Archant

A more pragmatic approach to Brexit is finally emerging – but so too are the threats from zealots

‘If we left the EU we would end this sterile debate and we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by Brussels, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills and a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capacity and infrastructure.’

Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, May 12, 2013

There was not much loose talk on Wednesday about Theresa May’s Article 50 letter being ‘Trigger Day.’ The sound of screams and gunshots punctuating Westminster’s usual hubbub were far too recent and attracted far more attention than Khalid Masood’s 82 second burst of brutal futility warranted.

The distraction guaranteed that much less attention than its importance deserved would be given over the next few days to the loudest noise now audible in nearby Whitehall: the belated sound of the penny dropping as sleep-walking ministers and their officials finally acknowledged eye-watering choices ahead.

‘We can’t have our cake and eat it,’ as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, conceded on Radio 4’s Today. Shock, horror! How dare he! Emollient in tone, the content of Theresa May’s Commons statement had much more eaten cake in it – something for everyone, but plenty of wishful thinking too – but it was clearly part of the wider effort to calm down the debate and lower pubic expectations.

In the emerging Tussles with Brussels there is a lot to do, the Expectation Lowerers are saying. Most of it is immensely complicated and detailed. It will require years of legislative adjustment, not just Thursday’s ‘Great Repeal Bill’ PR exercise, plus years of negotiation.

But time is in short supply and such political goodwill that survives impatient stridency – and the self-serving domestic politics of both sides – is fragile. A breakdown of talks leading to a Hard Brexit behind a World Trade Organisation (WTO) fig-leaf may lead the British economy over the cliff which Lord Lawson assures us does not exist. At the end of another balmy winter the former Tory chancellor also assures us that a man-made climate change crisis does not exist either. He will still be doing it when bananas ripen in Kent. Hopefully, an EU/UK deal will – with luck and judgment – be working to the advantage of both when they do.

On the publicly-available evidence, insouciant Boris Johnson, philosopher of having one’s cake and wolfing it, was not one of those roused from his intellectual slumber by the sound of pennies dropping on the Whitehall pavement. Whatever insight prompted the foreign secretary to pen the wise words quoted above in his £250,000 (‘chicken feed’) a year weekly column have long been consigned to the memory hole, sacrificed to the household gods of a waverer’s opportunist ambition. May’s post-Brexit soundbite that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is ‘perfectly OK’ to Boris, himself an example of the culture of easy gratification and under-investment of which he wrote so perceptively just four years ago.

But it is not OK to more thoughtful cabinet colleagues and officials, let alone to businesses which do much trade and were dropping pennies as loudly as they could dare before June 23 – with only limited effect until now. Things are no longer ‘perfectly OK’ to David Davis, Brexit secretary and most substantial of Theresa May’s Three Brexiteers – the hostages she keeps to curb unruly backbench behaviour while she attempts to cut a deal that Strasbourg, Brussels and Brexit strongholds like Sunderland and Carswell-on-Sea can all buy.

Things are not so ‘perfectly OK’ even to the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, who sets a pretty low bar in these matters and has just discovered how far away New Zealand is, and how little trade the UK now does with it – in contrast to the Kiwis’ teeming Asian neighbours, as they acquire middle class culinary habits and a taste for lamb.

Beware of political pressure to sign spurious but quickie trade deals on the rebound from the Brexit divorce, an academic consultant is warning Fox’s staff. After a hyper-active foray to distant capitals, sun-tanned Fox himself has shut up or been shut up. Hammond is a safe pair of Radio 4 hands. But more and more ministers are conspicuous by their absences from radio and television studios, reluctant to defend their policies, not just Brexit policies either. It leaves the field open to the nuances of ex-ministers and retired diplomats, or to (a win/win for May) Labour’s revolving door of often inadequate spokesfolk.

Even the mildest of their reservations (let alone a Brexit-critical draft report from mild Hilary Benn) risks accusations of ‘Remoaner Sabotage’ and ‘ Brexit Betrayal’ from a paranoid and predatory press which constitutes another sample of Boris’s easy gratification culture.

How was Monday’s critical meeting between Nicola, Queen of Scots, and her cousin, Theresa, Queen of the Woad-Wearers, about a second referendum on the fate of the historic Union of 1707 treated? It was turned into a tabloid ‘Legs-It,’ the tussle of the pins: which of these two formidable women has the best legs? They wouldn’t dare have done it to Margaret Thatcher (who had very fine legs).

But in the run-up to Britain’s new boy ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow’s delivery (does he know the way?) of May’s missive to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Davis was heard on a bad-tempered session of Question Time admitting that post-Brexit immigration may rise and fall according to demand, with no fixed cap like ex-home secretary May’s failed 100,000 target. ‘I don’t think most people oppose migration. I think most people are in favour of migration so long as it’s managed. The point is, it will need to be managed,’ the Brexit secretary told the Hereditary Dimbleby of State.

On Tuesday night lobby correspondents at Westminster were briefed that, despite earlier hints to the contrary, the triggering of A50 would not end automatic free movement of EU citizens to the UK, with all current rights in tact. In Brexit Speak: ‘Britain will obey Brussels rules for two more years.’

Sensible papers noted these concessions to reality, just as they note Fox’s growing unease about the nostalgic Commonwealth option, ‘Empire 2.0’, as Whitehall wits put it. They spotted Spreadsheet Phil’s intriguing stress on R4’s Today about not wanting ‘full customs union membership.’ A softer tone was also visible in May’s letter about a continuing relationship (but not ‘direct jurisdiction’) with the tedious but important European Court of Justice (ECJ).

It is the court Fleet St’s tabloids routinely – deliberately? – confuse with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which long predates the EU, its irritating mission creep attacked for impingement on UK judicial sovereignty. ‘No one bullies our judges except us,’ is Fleet St’s maxim.

Business and City types who brief ministers on the complexity of their particular sector’s needs – the likes of passporting rights to prevent those ‘long queues at Dover’ – sometimes complain that some remain in denial. They close their minds to difficulties which, if admitted, might destroy the intellectual foundations of their belief system: that Brexit is indeed ‘Freedom Day’ for Britain, not the leap in the dark that sensible voters in both camps know it to be and some think a price worth paying.

The self-censoring Daily Mail plays the ministerial self-deception, it sticks its fingers in its ears. So on the same page as Tuesday’s ‘Legs-It’ spread on Nic and Tess’s ankles (penned by Mrs Michael Gove), it printed a small panel reporting Davis’s chippier comment on Question Time. Britain would not pay ‘anything like’ 50 billion euros to settle its residual EU obligations, he said. ‘Anything like’ was actually wriggle room, an improvement on UKIP’s ‘not a penny’ stance, though that fantasy recently acquired the imprimatur of a report from diligent members of the usually-despised House of Lords. John Redwood, briefly Welsh Secretary a generation ago, thinks there need be no ‘exit bill’ either. May has already obliquely acknowledged the reality of compromise, speaking of an end to Britain’s ‘vast’ annual contributions. The operative word is ‘vast’.

Paris and Brussels might quibble over ‘vast.’ Berlin, whose EU membership fee is much vaster, certainly would. The tone of their interventions on Brexit – they really would prefer to concentrate on the EU 27’s other considerable problems – varies from punitive to sad-but-conciliatory. But they remain adamant that London’s Brexit bill must be agreed first, before talk of transitional arrangements and long-term cooperation can be discussed at all.

After all, 40 billion euros (the lower of the ballpark settlement figures EU officials have calculated) is roughly the UK’s annual education budget. Spread over many years – as pension payments and other budget items are – it is very doable, a price worth paying for ‘access’ (another good wriggle word) to what is still Britain’s largest (40%) export market and much else.

If British ministers are starting to sound as realistic as they dare – the ‘Enemies of the People’ lobby is yet to embrace May’s ‘come together’ appeal – there are similar signs across the Channel. Angela Merkel’s tone is always gentle, though she has not survived three (soon to be four?) terms in high office by being a pushover. David Cameron learned that the hard way. But even Jean Claude Juncker made emollient noises this week and Michel Barnier, David Davis’s French counterpart as designated EU negotiator, wrote a bland piece for Monday’s Financial Times. ‘Fair but firm,’ was his declared goal, one which protects the EU27 but also allows Britain an ‘orderly withdrawal’ as a precursor to a future trade partnership.

Note that ‘precursor.’ Barnier rejects the notion of parallel trade talks, though both sides increasingly acknowledge the need for transitional arrangements if the two year A50 process proves too short. Poland’s Tusk, as persecuted by his own government for his pro-European stance as any British Remoaner, was issuing a formal response to May’s letter on Friday. The EU 27 will not rush into detailed talks, even on the cash settlement. French and German elections will cast a long shadow until September, longer still if President Macron and Chancellor Schultz emerge from the fray: as strong Europeans both will incline towards being tougher on maverick Britain than, say, Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, who better understands Britain’s undeniable importance to Europe’s financial and military stability.

In his FT article, Barnier cited three points on which early agreement is vital: the security of up 4 million EU citizens whose residency rights in Britain are put at risk by Brexit, as well as Brits living overseas; the ‘settlement of accounts’ over Britain’s residual financial obligations; and the securing of the EU’s new land border, most obviously in Northern Ireland at this stage, though Nicola Sturgeon has views too in the neighbourhood of Berwick-on-Tweed. He also stresses, as do others, the need for British ministers to understand they must not try to split the 27’s ‘united front’ that makes preservation of their ever-closer union their top priority.

That may be wishful thinking. At the heart of Europe, France and Germany will need to cling together more than ever: ‘Don’t leave us alone with the French,’ a German visitor once begged a Tory conference audience. But outside the core, solidarity is less solid. Italy is fragile, Spain preoccupied with its own affairs, Poland already behaving as if it too is already halfway out the Pexit door. Mutual self-interest is obvious, but no more so than when Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave. Sovereign states, large and small ones, have the right to be selfish, short-sighted and stupid. So do Schengen and eurozone partners, as they have repeatedly shown in recent years.

So cautious old hands put chances of a successful outcome for the Tussles in Brussels at no higher than 50/50. That puts a lot of pressure on May because she is the sort of politician who carries all the load, a loner who keeps her cards close to her chest and has few intimates beyond husband Phil (newly outed as a pro-European, Tory City activist in the Thatcher era) and her two Praetorian chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. May is a natural outsider, not a ‘gregarious loner’ like Ken Clarke or Neil Kinnock, a real one like Michael Heseltine. It shows in those EU group photos she will not have to endure for much longer.

Barnier – with whom I once had lunch – is no charmer, but he is highly experienced, an operator in the snake pits of Paris and Brussels. Former Territorial SAS man Davis, it should be remembered, is not a novice either. Though out of office since 1997, he was once a ‘company doctor’ who helped restructure Tate & Lyle and wrote a book (1988) called How to Turn Round a Company. Good preparation and ‘a general air of visible determination and activity’, are crucial to successful negotiation, he wrote. Concessions are important, but keep them low.

But May is emerging as much a centralising controller as that other loner, Gordon Brown. Those who know her moderately well from past negotiations, in Europe as well as Whitehall, confirm that she does not easily do small talk or personal intimacy. She deals in facts and likes to be in control, a ‘bloody difficult woman,’ as Ken Clarke once put it (as a compliment). She hears all the arguments and decides later, often alone and at night, an ‘admirable crab-like way of doing things’, as one EU veteran puts it. But she has integrity and is straight, they all seem to agree. That matters, she is no Trump or Farage.

But is she flexible enough, imaginative enough and politically strong enough to think fast on her feet in those gruelling late night sessions of 11th hour horse-trading (‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’) beloved of the Brussels machine? Her Commons statement, timed to follow immediately after Sir Tim delivered her letter in Brussels, ticked all the boxes, but sounded more like the speech of an Oxford geographer (which she is) than an historian of Britain or Europe. At least she sounded on top of her brief – and the House. MPs who loudly jeered her reference to the ‘liberal democratic values’ shared by Britain and Europe misjudged watching viewers. But May’s ascendancy could easily change.

Control freaks who get to No 10 quickly find that ‘events, dear boy, events’ (as Harold Macmillan is said to have replied when asked what kept him awake at night) rapidly demolish carefully-laid plans. There are always Khalid Masoods in the woodwork and much else. The local political crisis in Northern Ireland could spiral into the collapse of the six counties into the Republic – or something nastier. Scotland is in the hands of separatists every bit as righteously fixated as Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Reach an agreement with Barnier and Brussels and she would not be out of the woods. Assorted parliaments will wave their vetoes, not least noisily in Strasbourg, itching to flex its muscles, or at Westminster, where Keir Starmer is painfully putting together a coherent Labour position that could attract support from Remain MPs in other parties and force May back to the negotiating table – if the table has not been removed.

It is all in the distant future when even the Daily Mail will have a less confrontational editor than Paul Dacre. Even so, it is already clear that the main threat to the pragmatic compromise which May and Hammond are now signalling comes from the ideological Brexit right. They are not those many voters whose expectations, relayed on radio and TV, sound more realistic, even resigned, in the Brexit heartlands, the Grimsbys and Sunderlands.

We do not need to look in the crystal ball to make that prediction, merely to read the recent record, here and in Trump’s America. When the Tea Party wing of the Tory party rejected Hammond’s modest reform of NICs it flagged up a new phase of fiscal irresponsibility. When the Republican Right rejected President Trump’s version of healthcare ‘reform’ it did so, not because it was half-baked and unworkable, but because it ‘did not go far enough’. When the time comes, the challenge for May could easily be to choose between her party and her country.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.