Vince Cable speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Lord Oakeshott speaking for Vince Cable?

Cable has previously suggested that the coalition could end early, a demand now made by the Lib Dem peer.

With his usual impeccable timing, Lord Oakeshott has chosen the launch day of the Lib Dems' European election campaign to call for the party to withdraw from the coalition immediately after the contest. He told Channel 4 News:

I think the problem is we have a very good message on what we've achieved, but it's being drowned out by being in government. Four years on, we've achieved most of what we set out to do in the coalition. Now, we must get out of government so we can put our distinctive Liberal Democrat messsage across, both about what we've achieved in government and what we are going to achieve in the next parliament separately from the Tories.

Straight away after the May elections, we must give ourselves a year to get our own messages firmly across. It's quite clear that we Liberal Democrats, having done our duty for the country, supporting the government, getting our reforms through, are actually in grave danger ourselves. It's not in the country's interests for our distinctive message not to be heard.

The key question, as one Lib Dem source suggested to me, is whether Oakeshott his speaking for his close ally Vince Cable (with whom he was on a party fundraising trip today). It's worth recalling that at last year's Lib Dem conference, Cable suggested the coalition could end well before the general election. He said of the chance of an early split: "It’s certainly possible. We are not at the stage of talking about that process. It is obviously a very sensitive one. It has got to be led by the leader. We have not yet had those conversations."

For those speculative remarks, he was slapped down by Danny Alexander, who declared: "This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament as we promised for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do - to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and entrench the recovery we are starting to see."

Alexander, who, as I wrote recently, has been on manoeuvres, is continuing to attract the interest of his colleagues. One source told me: "We are all talking about Danny. His moves at the moment are bizarre."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.