As the stopwatch on Brexit negotiations ticks away, things are getting a bit heated in the Tory fold. At its party conference ten days ago, the soft Brexit faction was gunning for the head of the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for (in their view) undermining the Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy in a bid to seize the leadership. Now, hard Brexiteers are demanding that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, be sacked for allegedly ‘sabotaging’ Britain’s position. So what’s going on?
Brexit’s staunchest supporters have long harboured a suspicion of the Chancellor rooted in their belief that his heart is not in it. Like the Prime Minister he backed Remain in the referendum but, unlike her, he has been accused of continuing to take a deeply pessimistic view of Britain’s future outside the EU and of wanting to do all he can to keep Britain inside in all but name. That’s to say, they think he wants Britain to negotiate an exit deal in which the country continues to abide by most of the rules of the single market and the procedures of the custom union in order secure maximum freedom of trade with our EU partners.
In pursuit of this he’s been charged with perpetuating what his opponents during the referendum campaign dubbed ‘Project Fear’, the painting of a gloomy and indeed alarming picture of how awful things could be once Britain leaves the EU. They believe that much that was predicted by this ‘project’ has already been proved wrong, not least the forecast that the economy would take an immediate hit if Britain voted to leave. But now they think he’s at it again.
Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee this week, the Chancellor said it was ‘theoretically possible’ that all air traffic between the UK and EU countries could stop after Brexit day in March 2019, though he added he thought it highly unlikely. The Daily Mail accused him of adopting an attitude to Brexit that was ‘dismal, defeatist and relentlessly negative’.
What especially irked the Brexiteers was an article he wrote in the Times on Wednesday in which he explained his refusal to spend money on contingency plans for a world after March 2019 in which no deal had been struck and Britain was having to face, for example, setting up a whole new system of customs arrangements and a very great deal else. He said he would spend such money only ‘when it’s responsible to do so’.
Some Brexiteers said this proved Mr Hammond wasn’t serious about trying to secure the best deal for Britain. Their argument is that in any negotiation it is vital to persuade the other said that you are serious about being ready to walk away from the table. In this case, they say, that can be achieved only by showing the EU’s negotiators that you are already making serious contingency plans to do just that and starting to spend money on them is the evidence needed to prove it.
Others take a less tactical but more fundamental view of the matter. They argue that an acceptable deal is unlikely or even that no deal is better than any conceivable deal. In either case, they say, it is vital to start spending now on measures to minimise any disruption caused by an abrupt exit from the EU.
Such a view was articulated by the former Tory chancellor, Lord Lawson. He said: ‘The really important thing now is that we prepare for the no-deal outcome and it is grossly irresponsible if we don’t.’ When asked whether Mr Hammond should continue in his job, Lord Lawson said: ‘I fear not … I fear that he is unhelpful. He may not intend it but in practice what he is doing is very close to sabotage’.
Supporters of the Chancellor reject all this. They argue that at a time of huge pressure on public spending, with demands for extra funds coming from all directions, the irresponsible thing to do would be to ‘waste’ scarce money on planning for an eventuality that may never come about. The Chancellor himself dismissed the idea that he should do so ‘just to make a demonstration point’ to EU negotiators.
Those who back him fundamentally disagree with his critics that a deal is unlikely, let alone undesirable. In their eyes what might appear to be a persistent stalemate in the Brexit negotiations is no more than the familiar and predictable brinkmanship that characterises all serious negotiation.
Furthermore, they claim already to see signs of movement on the other side. Earlier this week, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, publicly called for his bosses to relax the terms of his brief so that he could start getting down to discussion of the terms of a transition period after March 2019. And on Thursday a draft of the planned conclusion of next week’s European Council meeting was leaked suggesting that the EU should start to work out its own position on what the future trading relationship with the UK should look like. That would be the necessary prelude to getting down to serious negotiations with Britain.
Those who back the Chancellor in wanting a soft Brexit deal believe one is available because they also think the EU needs one as much as they think Britain does. The EU will want to secure its export markets in Britain, they say, and won’t want the sudden huge hole in the EU’s finances that ‘no deal’ would create. In other words, after the brinkmanship a deal will be struck at the last minute.
But this is exactly what alarms the hard Brexiteers. They fear that in any last-minute deal, Britain will end up paying the EU too much money and will settle on arrangements over trade and much else that will look little different from Britain’s actually remaining in the EU. That’s why they are keen to get rid of Mr Hammond.
Trying to hold this together is Theresa May, a much weakened prime minister. The result is that she looks unlikely to sack either Mr Johnson or Mr Hammond but instead to continue to preside over a highly febrile parliamentary party unsure whether their government, whatever it might say, really wants to leave the EU or not.
That uncertainty may have been heightened by the Prime Minister’s refusal to answer the question of whether she would again vote to remain in the EU if there were another referendum. It’s a hypothetical question that has caused difficulties for other former Remain voters not only in the Cabinet but on the Labour front bench too.
What are we to make of where we have got too? Do you think Philip Hammond is ‘sabotaging’ Brexit negotiations? Do you think he and some other former Remain leaders are unduly pessimistic about Britain’s future outside the EU or not? Is the Chancellor right to wait before spending money on contingency planning for ‘no deal’ or is he ‘grossly irresponsible’? Do you think ‘no deal’ is the most likely outcome or not? And if there is a deal, do you think it will leave Britain with an appreciably different relationship with our EU partners or that it will be much like the one we have within the EU now?
Let us know your views.