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20 June 2017

Why the UK had to back down on the Brexit timetable

The early triggering of Article 50 and Labour's surge have weakened the Conservatives' position.

By Stephen Bush

Life comes at you fast. In May, David Davis promised that argument over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be “the fight of the summer”. As it happened, it wasn’t even the row of 19 June – Davis agreed the EU’s preferred timetable without so much of a murmur.

That means that Britain and the European Commission will discuss the exigencies of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the state of the Irish border before moving onto the question of the future relationship. That means that the divorce bill – the settling of Britain’s liabilities to the rest of the bloc – will be discussed first, and what comes next later.

You can see the problem from the British side – one of the things Theresa May has done well is not ruling out continuing to pay into the EU after we leave. Now, of course Davis and the rest of the government would prefer to be discussing both that and the divorce bill at the same time.

What’s happened? Well, the short answer of course is that the PM made two big errors. The first was in triggering Article 50 when she did, and therefore using up time that we don’t really have to negotiate the terms of our exit. The second was in bungling her election campaign.

The first mistake means that Britain really doesn’t have the time to be rowing over the timetable – don’t forget that the 24-month period of negotiation is more like 18 months, as the agreement has to be ratified by member states and the European Parliament, which will take time.

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The second is that before, no matter what happened, many Conservative MPs consoled themselves that if Brexit went south, they had a pretty good back-up plan as far as the electorate went, and it was called Jeremy Corbyn. Now Corbyn is inches away from being in the box seat as far as minority government is concerned, and not too far away from being able to govern alone either. No deal is, it turns out, quite a bit worse than a bad deal.

But as far as the government goes, we are still leaving not only the European Union proper but the single market and the customs union as well. Whether you call it “hard”, “clean” or simply “misguided”, May’s preferred version of Brexit is, at least on paper, still on course to be delivered.

There are a couple of caveats, though. The first is that the parliamentary arithmetic for a hard exit is tricky, to put it mildly. The second is the length of the transition and the role of the European Court of Justice. The longer the transition, the softer the landing for Brexit Britain. And if you accept ECJ jurisdiction, Britain can still have the trade deals that many Brexiteers crave but without the traumatic exit that so many Remainers fear.

There are still powerful forces in favour of a hard exit from the European Union. The first is that the most well-organised part of the Conservative parliamentary party is its Brexit tendency. The second is that Jeremy Corbyn is himself a Eurosceptic of long vintage.

But that the fear of a Corbyn government is now active in the minds of Conservative MPs means that grandstanding over the timetable, or having this row or that fight, has already taken a backseat. A big breach with the EU could still follow it.