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A close reading of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s letter

They sent their demands for hard Brexit to Theresa May.

The latest news in Freelance Ministers Daily is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s letter to Theresa May, making demands for a hard Brexit.

In rather Orwellian terms, the memo is a push for the Prime Minister to ensure her cabinet backs her Brexit plan by “clarifying their minds” and making sure they “internalise the logic”.

Meant solely for the eyes of Theresa May, her chief-of-staff Gavin Barwell and, presumably, the entire British public, the secret letter was leaked to the Mail on Sunday.

Let’s have a look at what it says.

Title: EU Exit – Next Steps

This is terrible for SEO – difficult to believe two men who thrive off shock jock journalism wouldn’t know to use the infinitely more clickable “Brexit”. Must try harder.

“Your approach is governed by sensible pragmatism.”

This is an insult to the PM in the first line. First of all, she is supposed to govern, not be governed. Second, sensible pragmatism has been exactly what she has tried to steer clear of throughout her fight to make Brexit as damaging as possible.

“That does not in any way dilute our ambition to be a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election.”

“Ambition” is a key word here. Both cabinet ministers are known for their ambitions – they both ran against May for the leadership, with Gove betraying Johnson at the 11th hour. It seems they’re friends again, as long as it is expedient to unite in their pursuit of hard Brexit. “By the time of the next election” refers to 2022; Brexit should be done and dusted by then, according to Gove and Johnson, who do not want the transition period to go beyond June 2021 (see below).

“If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve.”

This is a classic use of the “those who” rhetorical trick that removes you from the person you’re targeting, without naming names or giving concrete examples. In this case, the ministers are attacking members of the cabinet, and the parliamentary party, who favour a soft Brexit and voted Remain.

The second part, “there are ways of underlining your resolve”, has a “we have ways of making you talk” ring to it. Ie. it’s a threat. If May doesn’t enforce her (read: Gove and Johnson’s) resolve to pursue her (read: Gove and Johnson’s) vision for Brexit Britain in the way they suggest (sacking or disciplining ministers that don’t comply), there’ll be consequences.

“We are profoundly worried that in some parts of government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.”

This is a veiled reference to the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s refusal to budget for a no-deal scenario – the Brexiteers’ persona non grata told the Treasury select committee in October that he wouldn’t release funding to prepare Britain for crashing out of the EU until the last minute.

“We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of no deal because that would undermine our obligation of ‘sincere cooperation’ with the EU.”

Again, the “some argue” trick, which allows you not to name (or sometimes to invent) your enemies – but attack them all the same. Again, this is a stab at Hammond, who has been reluctant to entertain a no-deal scenario.

“Sincere cooperation” is a core constitutional principle of EU law regarding a member state’s loyalty to the EU institutions and vice versa. It’s a mutual legal obligation for the EU and its members “to assist each other in carrying out the tasks which flow from the Treaties” – including leaving under Article 50.

So here, it sounds like they are sneering at the EU institutions and their language, as well as experts in the UK who know anything about EU constitutional law. Hammond’s used the term in a speech before too.

“If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.”

2021 is the key part here. It’s a demand that any transition period to give extra time to prepare for departure must end in June 2021, sticking to May’s request for a two-year pause on leaving.

A two-year maximum transition period was one of Johnson’s notorious Brexit “red lines” (he doesn’t want it to last “a second longer”), and some of the harder-core Brexiteers think even this is too long a transition. But Hammond has said there is “room for flexibility” and admitted that he wanted a longer pause – “between three and four years” – so this is definitely another dig at him.

Also, we’re already “over a barrel” (which means being at someone’s mercy, if you didn’t know). In fact, we’re rolling around inside a barrel, being pushed down a very steep hill, and we’re as much in control as a hamster in a washing machine.

“We all want you to push your agenda forward with confidence and have your government articulate the following...”

This part is rather contradictory, because it’s clear from their decision to send this letter that “We all” does not count everyone. It is a very specific set of politicians that has this vision – and doesn’t even speak for the entirety of May’s top team. #NotAllCabinetMinisters.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”