12 December 2017

The performance of ministers since Friday’s Brexit deal is undermining confidence in the UK. That will cost us in negotiations and will do nothing to reassure business, argues Jill Rutter.

Whatever you make of Friday’s deal, it was a deal. Both sides signed up to a text. On that basis, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the European Commission was prepared to recommend to the European Council that “sufficient progress” had been made to move to phase two. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has draft conclusions in his pocket.

Ministers have been hell bent on undermining Friday’s Brexit agreement

But the white smoke had barely escaped from the Brexit chimney before ministers started spinning it to their domestic audiences, reassuring Brexiteers that this was a deal they could leave with. The Irish might think the assurances meant one thing, but we thought it meant another. It only applied to a limited number of areas and equivalence would be OK, but not harmonisation.

The deal is not binding and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The UK has accepted commitments, but had not committed to commitments. The British public could change it all at another election.

Careless spin costs credibility

These reinterpretations may have helped the Prime Minister achieve the remarkable show of unity that was on display in the Commons yesterday, but they have come at a price. Already the Irish Government has clarified what it thinks has been agreed. Now the European Parliament is adding a 'David Davis' clause to their view on the judgment of sufficient progress. And EU irritation may take the form of delays in trade negotiations. 

For a taste of how this is playing on the continent, try Die Welt: “Keine 48 Stunden sollte der Burgfrieden halten, der den lang ersehnten ersten Brexit-Deal möglich gemacht hatte. Brexit-Minister David Davis brauchte nur wenige Sätze, um während eines Interviews mit der BBC das mühevoll aufgebaute Vertrauen zwischen Kontinent und Insel zu zerstören”  

Of course that is inconveniently in German, so no one would read it here. But it says: “The truce that the long-sought after EU deal made possible did not even last 48 hours. Brexit Minister David Davis needed only a few sentences in a BBC interview to destroy the painfully built up trust between the Continent and the Island”.

This comes on top of his tin-eared speech in Berlin in November and cavalier performance before the Commons Exiting the EU Committee over impact assessments.

Slippery ministers will make it harder for us to get the trade deal we want

There isn’t just a short-term cost. Every time UK ministers show that their word is worth nothing, they up the stakes for a UK trade deal. The Government wants a deal based on trust with recognition that the UK will meet EU standards by its own means. They don’t want the sort of intrusive jurisdiction the EU insists upon. Much of the row over citizens’ rights was on the question of whether the UK could be trusted to meet its commitments without extra oversight, and the final agreement was buttressed against arbitrary Home Office decisions. 

The EU is already worried about a potential regulatory predator on its doorstep. The more the UK looks like it can’t be trusted, the quicker the vague language on upholding international standards (as it is in the Canada trade deal) will turn into demands for cast-iron commitments on a level playing field.

The Government is sending a bad signal to business

One of the takeaways of Friday’s deal should have been reassurance that there would be a transition and business could put its contingency planning back in the pending tray. 

But the moment ministers cast doubt on their willingness to follow through with the deal, they dramatically discounted the value of that deal to business. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has pointed out that transition is a diminishing asset – the later it is agreed, the less valuable it is

This applies to certainty too. The less certain a transition, the less valuable it is and ministers have managed to devalue their biggest prize from last week’s deal.

Theresa May badly needs to take back control of her own Cabinet. 

Comments

Please clarify exactly what it was about Davis's Berlin speech which has caused you to characterise it as "tin eared". Thanks.

This line - which was picked out by every journalist watching - and is exactly what EU governments think we have done "Because putting politics above prosperity is never a smart choice". This should have had a red pen through it

An excellent example of how we earned the right to be known as 'perfidious Albion', defined in Wikipedia as 'an anglophobic pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations and diplomacy to refer to alleged acts of diplomatic sleights, duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to perceived promises made to or alliances formed with other nation states)' What is less commonly understood is that the British public, more often than foreign leaders, is the intended target of our perfidy.

Excellent analysis, Jill. One of the things that continues to prevail in the UK is an almost total ignorance about how the EU is approaching these negotiations and why. I realise some of this is down to the usual political desire not to "frighten the horses", but I fear it's also a lot about the need for the Government to keep its warring tribes together. But I find it hard to envisage a deal which will satisfy both sides.

Another way of expressing the same dilemma would be to say that "putting principle before expediency is never a smart choice." If indeed "every journalist watching" disagreed, this would merely confirm them as devotees of opportunism. Sometimes it's right to do what your heart tells you is right, and damn the economists with their slide rules (sorry, my age is showing - I meant computer models). I doubt whether most Leave voters truly believed that Brexit would make most of us materially richer - but those were not the scales by which they were weighing the merits of the argument.

Your doubt that most Leave voters believed that Brexit would be economically beneficial very much supports Jill’s point, which is simply that the line “Putting politics above prosperity is never a smart choice” is far more relevant to the realities of Brexit than it is to the EU’s wish to maintain the coherence of the single market, and hence its ongoing prosperity.
However, I'm sure that these realities were actually sufficiently well exposed in the pre-referendum Leave narrative to be able to say confidently that most Leave voters recognised and understood the trade-offs.

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