Brexit: Making progress or treading water?

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More than eight months after May triggered the two year Article 50 withdrawal process, Brexit negotiations are worryingly static. The most complicated part of the process – negotiating a bespoke new trade agreement – has not even begun yet as questions remain about the UK’s pre-existing commitments to the EU. At the same time the Irish border problem is a significant thorn in the government’s side, and one which highlights the disproportionate influence the DUP hold over the Conservative party.

PMQs this week saw MPs from across the House demanding some evidence of progress. In response, Theresa May has been leaning heavily on the phrase ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, a sentence seemingly custom built to obscure a lack of any real progress. If Theresa May is operating under the illusion that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, it is not something she has effectively communicated to the EU who are clear that negotiations will not progress until the UK has first agreed the total divorce settlement and second reached an agreement on the Irish border problem.

The appearance of a lack of progress is not helped by May regularly referring to positions stated in her Florence and Lancaster House speeches, the latter of which was delivered almost a year ago. If the government’s positions have not evolved or developed in almost a year, what progress has there been?

This is indicative of a wider problem the Conservative Par犀利士
ty has with messaging, particularly around Brexit. If the Conservative government has meaningful internal discussions on Brexit and a positive, evolving vision of life outside the EU, it is not something it has been willing to share with the British public. The government has three departments with overlapping responsibilities on Brexit – it clearly has the capacity to produce new information on Brexit and develop something resembling a plan, even one with contingencies depending on how negotiations with the EU progress – yet the flow of information from the government remains reactive and increasingly defensive.

A large part of the problem is that the Conservatives are focusing too narrowly on the deal with the EU. Progress on Brexit should not be defined solely in terms of what can be salvaged from the EU, otherwise what is the point in leaving? The government’s stated position is that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, yet it has not produced anything to back this up. This is an astounding oversight as it is impossible to take seriously David Davis’ insistence that the UK is willing walk away from the table if the UK apparently has no idea what walking away from the table looks like. From the outside it looks like the UK is totally dependent on a deal with the EU – a terrible negotiating position.

Fundamentally what the Conservative Party needs is some leadership. If Brexit is to be a success, the government needs to develop a visionary and realistic plan for the UK’s exit from the EU and support these aims with some positive message discipline. Crucially this vision must seriously engage with the possibility that the UK will leave the EU without a deal, otherwise it cannot seriously be argued that the UK government has any leverage in negotiations with the EU or a realistic future outside it. There is no doubt that Brexit will be the defining issue of Theresa May’s government. As it stands, the government is not rising to the challenge.

Ranelagh has recently produced a briefing on the EU and UK Brexit negotiators. You can read it here along with other briefings on a range of topics.