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18 December 2017

Why is the government only just now discussing what it wants from Brexit?

The answer is: it isn't. 

By Stephen Bush

Exactly 544 days after the Brexit vote, the cabinet will finally discuss what it wants the final shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU to be after we leave.

Or, at least, that’s the meme that critics of the government’s approach, ranging from pro-EEA Leavers to those committed to reversing Brexit entirely, are running with.

There are plenty of holes that you can fairly pick in the government’s Brexit approach, but this reading isn’t quite fair. The government has had numerous conversations about its preferred “end state”: in the run-up to Theresa May’s big speech on Brexit at Conservative party conference, before her speech at Lancaster House which laid out those objectives in further detail, and prior to her speech in Florence, which helped to end the deadlock in negotiations.

The British government’s objectives, as set out at Lancaster House, already limit its end state quite significantly – outside of the customs union and outside the single market – while the promises it made over the Irish border at the culmination of first phase of the Brexit talks have also placed firm limits on its end state. (In order to avoid physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and a border in the Irish Sea, the United Kingdom will have to mirror European regulations across a swathe of areas.)

So it is not really accurate to say that the cabinet has not discussed the end state. What is true is that there has been, at best, a failure to inform the public about the reality of those trade-offs, or at worst, a lack of understanding about what those trade-offs mean in practice.

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What is alarming both for Theresa May, and more importantly everyone else in the United Kingdom, is that some of the chatter about “not having discussed the end state” comes because Conservative ministers, on both sides, are not happy about one aspect or another of the government’s objectives so far (on the one hand, the fairly drastic Brexit that leaving the customs union and the single market suggests, on the other, the regulatory constraints that the promises on the Irish border entail.) They hope that somehow, in the final arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union, these things will go away.

What will happen when it becomes apparent that they won’t?