07 November 2017

The changing membership of Cabinet committees indicates that the Government is gearing up for the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, argues Jill Rutter.

One of the striking things about the last Parliament was the establishment of a small Cabinet committee to oversee the negotiations with the EU: the war Cabinet we said the Prime Minister needed.

The committee was small: beyond the Prime Minister and, post-election, the First Secretary of State, it was confined to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and the Foreign Secretary (both Leave supporters) and the Home Secretary and Chancellor (prominent Remain campaigners).

But last week the Cabinet Office issued an updated list (which already needs updating) that expands Cabinet committee membership.

European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-Committee

There is a careful balance struck between Leavers and Remainers

There are four additions to the committee.

The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox made it clear that he was deeply unhappy at being left off the initial cast list. He now joins the expanded committee alongside Michael Gove from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The addition of Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, and former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who was there as another Remainer, balanced the Leave and Remain sides. Gavin Williamson will now take Fallon’s place, leaving that balance intact.

Expanding the committee makes sense given the possible move to phase two of the negotiations

There is a political case for increasing the number of senior Cabinet members with their 'hands in the blood' as critical decisions are made on a withdrawal agreement. Certainly the Prime Minister must use former Leave campaigners to sell any concessions to her backbenchers.  

But expanding the remit makes further sense as the Brexit negotiations potentially move forward from phase one – the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and Ireland – onto phase two: the future UK-EU relationship. The terms we agree on any EU-UK free trade agreement will provide the starting point for any future deals made by the Department for International Trade. Making sure business is heard matters too, so Greg Clark’s inclusion is logical.

Agriculture and fisheries will be important elements in our future relationships (and agriculture is a particularly complex issue to solve in the context of the Irish border).  Environmental regulation is also one big element in having a future level playing field with the EU. Gove’s addition means that there is a Leave supporter on the committee with a departmental remit that brings him up close to some of the awkward implementation challenges of Brexit.

The inclusion of the Defence Secretary could be ballast or balance – but, although much less emphasised than the trade relationship, phase two is also supposed to look at the future of security cooperation. So the security big three – Foreign Office, Home Office and Defence – are now all on the committee.

The Northern Ireland Secretary is an odd omission from the cast list

Ireland is a potential stumbling block for phase one of the negotiations, and an issue that will remain live through phase two as well. James Brokenshire’s continued absence from the committee may simply reflect the fact that all difficult decisions on Irish relations end up in No. 10 not the Northern Ireland Office. But it sends an odd signal about the importance the UK attaches to finding a solution that works for Ireland.

Whitehall also needs to get ready for phase two

The phase two negotiations will be a different challenge for Whitehall. We are told that around 100 UK civil servants take part in the monthly rounds so far. Expect this number to swell considerably if we get anywhere near substance on trade. As we pointed out before, trade deals require collaboration with departments, arm’s-length bodies and wider stakeholders with knowledge of the detail.

Michel Barnier’s team expect to run the EU side in the same way as they ran phase one. It’s not yet clear whether David Davis will arrive flanked by other ministerial colleagues whose departmental briefs are up for discussion. But this will be a significantly bigger task of coordination than anything we have seen yet.