In these febrile political times since the UK’s General Election it feels like something could break any moment in Britain’s arduous EU departure process. Rather than the inexorable track towards a Hard Brexit (with the threat of “no deal”) that looked likely prior to 8th June, the past few weeks have been characterised by uncertainty, a lack of confidence among the Brexiteers, and a lot of staking out of positions by backbench politicians and commentators.
Everyone has interpreted what the election has meant for Brexit according to their biases – from today’s hollow Spectator editorial trotting out the line that more than 80% of voters at the General Election backed pro-Brexit parties (hence Brexit is more inevitable than ever), via centre right commentators in CapX acknowledging things are not right, through to a renewed assertiveness of Labour’s moderates to argue for a softer Brexit (with consequences for their own careers).
Today the CBI – comparatively quiet for so long – entered the fray, arguing the UK ought to indefinitely stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union. The softest of soft Brexits, for an unlimited time. One may wonder whether such a Brexit would even be worthwhile – which quite possibly was their point.
The only thing missing so far has been anything decisive from any top character in the government. Davis pottered off to Brussels to start negotiations before the Queen’s Speech had been delivered, and his and May’s public utterances have been strikingly similar to anything before the election. The miserly offer on citizens’ rights was a sign of that. Davis, and indeed Hammond as well, rejected the CBI proposal according to the FT this evening. The most critical has been Hammond pouring cold water on the value of the UK signing its own trade deals post-Brexit.
But what if that unity of the government position were to change? And who could change their position?
May is too invested in her anti-immigration and anti-ECJ line to be the one to shift. David Runciman in LRB on Theresa May makes me further think any change from her is unlikely. She could be forced out, or resign of her own accord for her own reasons, but she will not cite a change of view on Brexit as the reason. Davis is a Brexit radical anyway – he actually still agrees with the government line. So he will not move. Johnson does not seem to know his mind, so if he were to change his view it would be met with a shrug “oh, Boris!” and make him even more of a laughing stock than he is already. If any junior minister, or indeed most of the anodyne cabinet, decided they no longer backed the official line, nothing much would happen.
Which brings us then to the central character in all of this: Philip Hammond.
Spreadsheet Phil looks at the numbers. He knows how damaging Brexit (and especially hard Brexit) would be to the UK economy. He is defending the hard Brexit, quick transition if necessary line because he has to, not because he thinks it is sensible. He was a Remainer, a little more vociferous than May, but nevertheless still rooted in that little Englander-ness that May shares. He cannot be described as a wet or a liberal.
If Hammond were to break with the official government line – and resign as Chancellor at the same time (which would be necessary due to cabinet collective responsibility) – that would strike an almost certainly fateful blow to the government’s Brexit line. The government is not replete with political heavyweights – he is one of the few they have. To lose Hammond now would leave May’s government mortally wounded, and the whole Brexit approach wounded with it.
So why would Hammond change his position and jump? He surely knows its only a matter of time before the worsening economic situation leaves him with a major problem as Chancellor. The CBI’s approach today more or less spelt that out for him. Were he to jump now, history would treat him kindly – the canary in the Brexit mine before the explosion ahead. Yes, he would be politically toast short term, but this government is going to be politically toast medium term anyway.
So here is your chance, Philip. The future of Brexit and how it will go, and indeed even the future of Britain in the EU actually is in your hands. Get on with it – jump!
I think it is significant that the promised Summer Finance Bill has not materialised. The Queen’s speech stated that there would be 3 Finance Bills in this session of Parliament. Normally there is only 1, but this session of Parliament will cover two years. So Fi Bill 1= round up of what was dropped from pre-election Fi Act 2017 (a lot of really important tax measures), Fi Bill 2 to be published Nov 2017, becomes Fi Act 2018 effective from April 2018, Fi Bill 3 to be published Nov 2018 becomes Fi Act 2019 effective from April 2019. But Fi Bill 1 has not appeared and now there doesn’t seem to be time to pass it before Parliament recess on 20 July.
This indicates to me that the Govt’s financial programme is in a mess, and it is not confident that it can get a Finance Bill passed. The voting down of a Finance Bill would surely be the end of the Government.
Hammond is due to present a full Budget in Autumn 2017, probably in November. I wonder if he will take that opportunity to spell out exactly what Brexit will cost the country and propose tax rises to fill the revenue gap. The forecasts produced by the independant Office for Budget Responsibility ( OBR) will be a key part of that Budget speech, and the Chancellor has a duty to respond to the OBR forecasts twice a year. What clearer message could there be the Brexit is goign to cost the country dear, than one set out by the Chancellor and backed by independent research from the OBR?