The Tories made a show of ending their summer of Brexit bickering this week in the run-up to Theresa May’s return from holiday.
Chancellor Philip Hammond jointly signed an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper with international trade secretary
Liam Fox. It came days before the first of Brexit secretary David Davis’s offical position papers.
“Hard Brexiteer” Fox speaks to the nationalist right wing of the Tory grassroots, Hammond to the interests of big businesses. Hammond has fought a rearguard action to preserve the most neoliberal aspects of European Union (EU) membership.
There’s also a grubby Whitehall turf war.
Fox’s international trade department was meant to bring him the influence and glory of negotiating post-Brexit trade deals. It won’t do much if Britain stays in the EU’s customs union. It’s effectively a binding, Europe-wide trade deal whose members are banned from making other deals on the side.
Both sides deserve to lose and their truce may not last.
The big concessions in the article were by Hammond. He promised that any transitional period would end by 2022 and that Britain would leave the customs union. This invited ridicule from both the Tory right and pro-EU liberals.
But Davis rapidly poured cold water on Fox’s gloating. His paper took a different emphasis. Britain will pay to stay in the customs union for now, then replace it with a “customs partnership”—and commit to not making other deals until then.
The government has little room to manoeuvre. It cannot afford to alienate business too much. But to stay in office it needs to avoid picking fights with its base, scapegoate migrants and reassure Leave voters.
In a seperate paper this week Davis was expected to offer continued free movement for Irish nationals after Brexit. This keeps up an arrangement—a hangover from Britain’s empire—that long predates the EU and that couldn’t be ended without provoking bigger rows.
But keeping it will satisfy neither side. The anti-migrant racists will say it isn’t enough, while other EU nationals and their supporters will ask why the government can’t make the same offer to them.
Tory former business minister Anna Soubry and the Labour right’s favourite leader in exile David Miliband both hinted on Sunday about the possibility of a cross-party anti-Brexit alliance.
Other Labour right MPs have daydreamed out loud about a new anti-Brexit centre party to escape Labour’s left wing leadership. So has Tory adviser James Chapman.
But the idea has failed to catch on. The British state’s relationship with the EU is far from being most voters’ top priority.
And Labour’s general election result showed the potential to unite Leave and Remain voters.
Brexit is a huge headache for the Tories. That’s an opportunity to fight them over the issues that matter to workers, such as the pay freeze, the cuts and migrants’ rights.