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7 September 2016

Theresa May’s Brexit balancing act is struggling to survive the rigours of Westminster

The contradictions between her top team – and Brexit itself – are being exposed by Parliament. 

By Stephen Bush

Thus far, Theresa May has done a very good job of negotiating the tricky waters of Britain’s Brexit vote, at least as far as maintaining Conservative unity is concerned. The unspoken, and so far relatively untroubled faultline for the government is reconciling the two prongs of Britain’s Out vote – control of the United Kingdom’s borders and reducing the country’s contributions to the European Union – with the imperative of keeping the British economy chugging along, ie. maintaining access on good terms to the single market. 

The phrase “on good terms” is as important as the “access” part. North Korea has access to the European single market, it’s just not a standard of access that would do anything other than knacker the British economy. For the United Kingdom, access on good terms primarily means two things: firstly, maintaining the passporting regime for British-domiciled financial institutions, allowing them to trade and lend as freely as if they operated anywhere in the European Union, and ensuring that goods made in the United Kingdom continue to enjoy the benefits of being subject to EU “rules of origin”, which is particularly vital to keeping Japanese companies like Nissan in the UK at current levels.  

Ideally, of course, the government would like both to maintai continued access on good terms to the single market and to keep faith with the two central drivers of Britain’s Brexit vote.  – but as I’ve written before, it’s difficult to see why such an arrangement would be in the interests of the remaining 27 nations of the European Union. At some point, May may have to choose between those objectives. But she has done a good job, at least so far, of not indicating either to the nations of the European Union she will soon have to negotiate with, or her own party, which one she will choose, in the crunch.

Calculated ambiguity, however, is a harder trick to maintain in the harsh light of the House of Commons than it is over the summer recess, as both David Davis and Robert Goodwill, the new immigration minister, have already found. Although talk of a rift between Davis and Downing Street after the former indicated that border control came before access to the single market is overstated – May praised Davis at Cabinet on Tuesday for handling his return to minsterial duties for the first time since 1997 with aplomb – that he was drawn on terms the government may or may not be willing to accept attests to the tricky neddle that the government is threading as far as negotiating Brexit is concerned. 

Goodwill also came a cropper at the Home Affairs Select Committee, under questioning from Labour’s Chuka Umunna, conceding that the government’s threat that the  residency of EU citizens already in the United Kingdom will be up for question cannot be enforced, saying “No, we’re not in a position, and I can’t foresee a situation where we would want to be in that position”, and conceding that exit checks at the British border haven’t been in operation long enough, and in any case are imperfect thanks to the open border with the Republic of Ireland, for the threat to carry out any weight.

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The parliamentary calendar is two days old. With Prime Ministers Questions and International Trade questions still to come, the contradictions of Brexit may become apparent far faster than Downing Street would like. It may be that chances that when negotiations begin in earnest, much of May’s hand will have been shown in advance.  

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