14 February 2018

The Foreign Secretary’s highly-trailed speech does little to make the Government’s view on Brexit much clearer, says Jill Rutter.

Over the next few weeks we are promised five speeches paving the way for the Prime Minister to set out the road to Brexit.

But Boris Johnson’s speech today revealed nothing more than the Prime Minister’s speech a year ago at Lancaster House. Nothing has changed. The red lines are all still there. The language may be more conciliatory towards Remain voters, but the vision – bereft of detail – remains the same.

The Foreign Secretary reiterated the need to leave the EU Single Market and the Customs Union to allow the UK to set its own regulations and its own tariff schedules. He was vague on immigration and refused to be drawn on whether there would be a preferential scheme for EU nationals.

And he emphasised that we can still be part of the Erasmus student exchange scheme and Horizon science collaboration programme – and continue to have stag parties in European capitals – if we have a deal on aviation and visa-free travel.

Boris Johnson’s speech appeared to row back from Florence – and the December UK-EU joint report

One of Theresa May's aims in her Florence speech was to allay the EU's fears that the UK could become a deregulatory rogue state on its doorstep. The Prime Minister said there are areas where we could stay aligned with EU regulations and others where we could achieve the same outcomes through different means.

But Johnson’s emphasis on the costs of EU regulation and the UK’s increasing competitiveness suggests some divergence – maybe modest, maybe substantial – from the Prime Minister’s assurances.

The immediate effect of Johnson’s emphasis on deregulatory opportunities may be that the EU doubles down on the pluses they seek in any Canada-style deal – to make sure that the UK cannot tilt the playing field too far.

And the emphasis on divergence – on both tariffs and regulation – will make the Government's commitments on avoiding a hard border in Ireland even harder (if not impossible) to deliver. The most likely effect is that the EU will further tighten the legal texts on withdrawal.

If Boris Johnson’s speech is the Government’s agreed position, we are heading for Canada

If this speech represents the outcome of the Cabinet’s deliberations, then ministers have come down firmly on the Canada end of the choice offered by Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit. There is no hint at what extras the UK would seek to ease the impact of Brexit on trade flows.

That inevitably means friction – possibly from tariffs, but definitely from rules of origin and regulatory checks. No mention of services. No hint of regulatory co-operation. On trade, at least, the Johnson vision is neither deep nor special.

Or was it just another public salvo in the Cabinet’s ongoing internal Brexit argument?

Boris Johnson's speech took place between the Cabinet committee meetings and the Chequers awayday – when the Cabinet will try to reach a compromise. We are told that today’s speech was cleared by Number 10. But rather than a collective view, it sounded more like a Brexiteer rebuff to Chancellor Philip Hammond for his “modest changes” speech at Davos last month than a final statement of position.

The good news for the Prime Minister is that Johnson’s speech has not pre-empted hers by spelling out a detailed roadmap. The bad news is that he has publicly and firmly underscored many of the most contentious Brexit red lines.

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