A leaked government memo has confirmed our worst suspicions about Downing Street’s plan for Brexit: ie, there’s absolutely nothing there.
Highlights: “the government’s priority remains its political survival, not the economy”, with business concerns largely seen as “a PR issue” there is “no clear economic Brexit strategy”, there won’t be one “any time soon”, and that Theresa May’s style of “drawing in decisions and details to settle matters herself” is unsustainable in the longterm. The lack of direction from the centre, meanwhile, has Whitehall’s different departments drawing up plans that are both contradictory and overlapping – and the Civil Service doesn’t have the staff to manage Brexit or to get to grips with it in the six months before May has pledged to trigger Article 50.
Though the report has, I’m told, been written without the government’s say-so, by Deloitte, the consultancy firm that has been brought into to advise, the note merely commits to paper what is being said privately by civil servants throughout Whitehall, and by businesses, who leave meetings with ministers frustrated and confused.
And, of course, it’s not so different to Nicola Sturgeon’s frustrated press conference outside Downing Street about the government’s lack of a plan a few weeks back, which was widely dismissed by critics of the SNP as grandstanding at the time.
But there is something to note for those people hoping for a softer landing than dreamed of by the Brexiteers. Here’s the crucial aside, on the public spats between Philip Hammond, Greg Clark and the three Brexiteers “Overall, it appears best to judge who is winning the debate by assuming the noisiest individuals have lost the intra-government debate and are stirring the external supporters”.
You don’t need me to tell you that the loudest noises have been coming from the Brexiteers in general and allies of Liam Fox in particular.
That suggests that the government is aiming for a softer Brexit than its public pronouncements suggest – but will they get one?
As I’ve written before, a great deal of attention at a senior level is being paid to the Norway grants, where that country pays money not just to the European Union directly but to the constituent nations of the Union as well. Brexit leaves a large hole in the EU’s budget, too, which gives Britain considerable wriggle room.
Added to that is the fact that the City of London remains the trading centre for the Euro, and there is room for a Brexit deal that doesn’t flatten the economy.
However, money only gets you so far, and it has to be accompanied by goodwill and careful negotiation. The latter has been absent, and that is contributing to an erosion of any remaining goodwill towards the United Kingdom.
Donald Trump’s election presented the United Kingdom with an option to secure credit in the bank by offering security to the EU’s periphery, particularly the Baltic states. Instead, the government is behaving in a startlingly uncritical way towards the Trump administration, even as the President-Elect appoints a white supremacist to a senior position and makes eyes at Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad.
Added to that is the general distaste at remarks like the “citizens of nowhere” remarks May made in her conference speech and Amber Rudd’s now-abandoned proposal to force firms to list their foreign workers.
So while the government’s strategy, such as it is, may be heading towards a softer Brexit, the groundwork to get there is not being done – and the plan for what happens if Britain doesn’t get one is non-existent.