What Did You Miss? What Brexit Did When Europe Hit the Beach
(Bloomberg) -- Tuned out of Brexit over the summer? Now’s time to tune back in. With November emerging as the new deadline for a divorce agreement to be sealed, the next few weeks will be crucial. A deal is still possible, but U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will have to postpone the hardest decisions. And even so, she’ll have to face down some high-stakes challenges at home.
Here’s a roundup of what’s changed -- and what hasn’t.
May’s plan is in trouble
The prime minister went on her summer break having finally set out a Brexit negotiating position that would keep Britain close to the European Union’s markets but outside its institutions. Pro-Brexit lawmakers -- whose votes she needs to approve the final deal -- didn’t like it; EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier didn’t either. Now even the loyalists are starting to come out against it, with Conservative lawmaker Nick Boles saying it puts Britain on course for “humiliation.” She may have to depend on opposition lawmakers to get a deal through Parliament -- a risky strategy. Rumblings of a possible leadership challenge have returned. On Monday, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was on the front page of the Telegraph saying that May has failed because she hasn’t tried hard enough. And 20 Tory lawmakers announced their intention to vote against May’s plan.
Asked to respond to Johnson’s column, May’s spokesman James Slack had the following to say: “There’s no new ideas in this article to respond to. What we need at this time is serious leadership with a serious plan.”
The deadline has moved
It was October. Now it might not be. “There is some measure of leeway,” Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said last week. An emergency EU summit in November to sign the deal could be on the cards. Remember that Brexit is in two parts: first the divorce agreement to make sure the exit is orderly, and then the future trade deal, which won’t be negotiated until after the U.K. leaves. This means some of the trickiest decisions about the future relationship can be postponed until after Brexit has happened.
May might move, too
When it comes to EU negotiations, May is clear. “There will be no compromises,” she wrote on Sunday, “that are not in our national interest.” That doesn’t rule very much out.
May doesn’t like Brexit
The prime minister regularly trots out language that sounds a pro-Brexit -- “no deal is better than a bad deal” -- but the thing that’s become clear during 2018 is that that she basically thinks Brexit is a bad idea. That’s not such a surprise, as she campaigned against it. It explains why her goal is to stay as close as she dares to the EU. On her visit to Africa last week she passed on two opportunities to say she thought Brexit was a good idea. This also suggests that, whatever May says, she’ll try to avoid a “No Deal” outcome.
‘No Deal’ might happen
One of the stranger arguments of the summer was when Brexiteers first demanded the government publish its “No Deal” planning, and then complained that the documents were likely to make this outcome look unpleasant. So far, we’ve had one tranche of the documents, and that’s exactly what they do. Britain is warned to prepare for delays, increased costs, more red tape, and shortages of drugs and even sperm. For all that, all sides think this might be where Britain ends up if nothing can be agreed. In that case, Raab is hoping British regulatory bodies can make their own deals with their European partners.
The Irish Question Persists
On Friday, Barnier set Raab some homework: Tell us details on where and how you propose to do checks on goods crossing the Irish border, if not at the border and not in the Irish Sea. This problem remains as unresolved as it has been for two years. Brexit supporters know they need to tackle it if they’re to persuade people of their case. As they don’t have a neat solution, their argument is that it isn’t really a problem. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Sunday it had been “heavily over-emphasized.” Johnson, writing in Monday’s Telegraph, took a similar line. “You don’t need to check goods at the frontier, for all sorts of reasons,” he explained. “There are only about 50 large companies that trade across the frontier, and their goods could be subject to spot checks in warehouses or at points of sale.”
Labour for a second referendum
It’s definitely not party policy, but the opposition Labour Party is not ruling out a second Brexit referendum. The position was set out on Sunday by John McDonnell, who would hold the position of chancellor of the exchequer if Labour were in power: “My preference is a general election,” he told the BBC. “If she won’t go for a general election, we’ll keep all options on the table.” This idea will come back at Labour conference at the end of September. Different anti-Brexit campaign groups are working hard to keep the idea alive.
Will anti-Brexit Tories leave the party? Will Labour split? At the moment, Labour looks more vulnerable. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has struggled to deal with accusations of anti-Semitism. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Sunday urged the party to change course and acknowledge the anger and fear of many British Jews. And last week, Labour lawmaker Frank Field quit the party in protest. Is that the start of something?
Field is a highly unusual Labour politician, who had faced his local party selecting someone else as its candidate at the next election. Other Labour lawmakers, worried that they might be next, will look nervously at Monday’s announcement by Momentum -- the pro-Corbyn Labour pressure group -- that it wants to make it easier to replace sitting lawmakers as candidates. If Labour lawmakers do split from the party then most of them, unlike Field, are likely to campaign even more vociferously against Brexit.
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