A Brexit speech with leadership in mind
Boris Johnson’s speech today was a further reminder of how Brexit is inextricably bound up with the internal politics of the Conservative party. Briefed out as an attempt to woo Remain voters by assuring them that leaving the EU is a cause for ‘hope not fear’, the speech was more notable for Johnson’s thickening of Theresa May’s old red lines on ‘taking back control’ and getting out of the single market and the customs union. The Foreign Secretary has not given up hope of leading the Conservative Party and this intervention was strategic positioning in that long battle.
In a key passage he asserted:
“It is only by taking back control of our laws that UK firms and entrepreneurs will have the freedom to innovate, without the risk of having to comply with some directive devised by Brussels, at the urgings of some lobby group, with the aim of holding back a UK competitor. That would be intolerable, undemocratic, and would make it all but impossible for us to do serious free trade deals. It is only by taking back control of our regulatory framework and our tariff schedules that we can do these deals, and exploit the changes in the world economy.”
May under pressure
Theresa May has surprised many with her ability to survive so long as PM, and had managed to recover some authority when she secured the Phase I Brexit agreement in December. But that authority was quickly lost in a botched reshuffle that served to renew all the doubts among Tory MPs in her ability to lead.
Recent weeks have seen rumours of further letters being sent by backbench Tories to Graham Brady MP, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, edging closer to the threshold of 48 that would trigger a leadership election. The Eurosceptic wing of the party has become more hostile since the Phase I deal, directing attacks on Philip Hammond and Treasury officials as a proxy assault on the PM, who they worry is softening on Brexit.
“Road to Brexit” attempt to muffle Boris
In that context Number 10 viewed today’s speech by Boris with increasing anxiety, fearing that he would – as he has – set out a hardline position that presents a challenge to the PM going forward. That concern helps to explain why the Prime Minister’s language on Brexit has hardened in recent weeks, going back to some of the tougher assertions in her Lancaster House speech and prompting the EU to warn that a transition agreement is not guaranteed if the UK backslides on the December deal.
It also explains the government’s announcement that the Foreign Secretary’s is just one in a series of ‘Road to Brexit’ speeches by members of the Cabinet, including the PM herself. That concept has been hastily developed in an effort to contain and dilute the political impact of Boris’s intervention. But these ‘chaff’ speeches are unlikely to contain anything of substance.
Hammond touring Europe
Much has been made of the fact that Philip Hammond is not one of the ministers offering a speech in this series, with some suggesting that the Chancellor has been gagged. However the Chancellor is on a long-planned trip to Europe that is of greater import to the Brexit negotiations.
Hammond is seen in European capitals as the most sensible member of the UK Government and the man with whom they want to have political contact. The conversations he has in the coming days, beginning in Norway – famously outside of the EU but in the EEA – and continuing Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, will inform future negotiations.
That will worry Brexiteers who, rightly, believe Hammond and the Treasury are working to secure a Brexit deal that will keep Britain in the ambit of the EU, thwarting their efforts to re-orientate the UK economy and outlook. The Treasury is determinedly looking for detailed policy solutions that will enable the UK to navigate through the Brexit quagmire without provoking a political or economic crisis. But while HMT is pushing for answers that would see the UK remain closely aligned to the EU, it is nonetheless looking into novel policy areas such as the proposal for Free Ports.
Hard choices approaching
Yet the problem for the government and most particularly for Mrs May is that the Brexit process is nearing the point where hard binary choices need to be faced – especially on the customs union. That may happen soon – when the EU presents its legal text on the draft Phase I agreement, or when the EU’s guidelines for future trade talks make clear the economic costs of ‘taking back control’. It will certainly happen later, when the Phase II agreement is hopefully presented in the Autumn.
Either or both these occasions will present supreme political danger to the PM, forcing her to adopt a clear position that may alienate the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party on the one hand or the EU27 with whom she is attempting to broker a deal on the other.
However, it will also be a moment of challenge for her Brexiter rivals, most notably Boris Johnson, who will similarly be forced to confront a key political choice. It was notable today that the Foreign Secretary accepted that “things will stay the same” during the transition phase. But he also refused to guarantee not to resign if the Cabinet position is at odds with his vision of divergence.