Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Jeremy Corbyn ready to show Brexit hand

LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn will put himself “front and center” of Labour’s Brexit strategy next week with a major speech on Monday designed to clarify the party’s position.

The U.K. Labour leader will jump the gun on Prime Minister Theresa May, who is not expected to set out her vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU until March 1, although this date has not been confirmed.

Aides familiar with the speech, which comes after a special “away day” of Labour’s Brexit team last Monday, said it will be a key moment in the party’s evolving position on the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

“It’s a significant moment in the development of Labour Party policy,” one aide familiar with the speech said. “It will set out the principles we would want to achieve in the negotiation and how this fits into our wider agenda for change for the economy.”

In recent weeks, senior Labour figures have become increasingly open to the possibility of the party remaining in a system all but mirroring the current EU customs union, while many on the right of the party are openly campaigning for the U.K. to remain in the single market.

Corbyn and his closest advisers are, however, insistent that they cannot support any ongoing relationship in which the U.K. is forced to accept rules and regulations made in Brussels over which it has no say.

Those inside Corbyn’s inner circle point out that the EU is currently dominated by the center right and they would not be prepared to delegate power over industrial policy and workplace protections to a body that does not share its outlook.

Senior figures in the party — from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer — have been clear that they want the U.K. to be a “rule-maker, not a rule-taker.”

Those involved in designing the party’s Brexit policy are looking at models of single market membership similar to that enjoyed by Norway but with new mechanisms to reflect the size and influence of the U.K. “I think there is an openness to this in Brussels,” one senior shadow minister said.

A senior Labour official briefed on the speech said the party is not purist about sovereignty, pointing out that certain international standards are set at the World Trade Organization and they have no qualms about this.

Critics will accuse the party of attempting its own “cake and eat it” policy, the likes of which have been much derided in Brussels.

Customs vote headache for Tories

LONDON — Ministers believe MPs could defeat the government in a crunch House of Commons vote expected in the coming weeks, designed to force the U.K. to join a customs union with the EU after Brexit.

Amendments to two upcoming pieces of Brexit legislation — one aimed at keeping the U.K. in the EU customs union, and the other aimed at binding May to negotiating a new customs union with the EU — have become the government’s biggest short-term domestic concern, one minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The second of the two amendments, attached to the government’s upcoming Trade Bill and backed by Conservative Brexit rebels Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, is of most concern, as its support for “a” rather than “the” customs union is in line with the Labour party’s emerging position on the issue.

A number of Labour shadow cabinet members have in recent days reiterated the party’s support for a customs union, arguing the arrangement could help solve the problem of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn told delegates at the EEF manufacturers’ organization’s conference in London on Tuesday that “we have to have a customs union that makes sure we can continue … trade, particularly between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is key to it.”

The government has yet to announce when the Customs Bill and Trade Bill, to which the two amendments are attached, will return to the House of Commons for their report stage and third reading.

Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom will lay out business for the week ahead on Thursday but MPs believe the government may delay the bills until after May’s anticipated speech setting out her vision for the future relationship with the EU, expected next week.

One senior Conservative MP said colleagues were waiting to see what commitments were in the speech, and in other Brexit speeches from ministers due next week, before deciding which amendments to back.

The minister said that despite the concern, until the Labour leadership came out in support for one of the amendments, the government could easily defeat them.

“They are a concern, but we have to wait and see what Labour does,” the minister said. “If Corbyn decides to back one of them then it’s a different ball game.”

One senior Labour MP said the issue could be explosive for the government. “It could be the end of May,” the MP said, pointing out that, if the government were to be forced into supporting a customs union, it would infuriate backbench Conservative Brexiteers who insist the U.K. must not be restricted in its ability to strike free trade agreements with non-EU countries, and have the numbers to force a vote of no confidence in May.

The Labour leadership will not make a final decision on how to whip its MPs on amendment votes until it is known when the bills will be returning to the House of Commons, a senior aide said.

But in a further sign of the importance being attached to a potential customs union vote, the chairs of the House of Commons Treasury and Home Affairs select committees, Conservative Brexit rebel Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, have jointly organized a briefing for MPs and peers from business and manufacturing leaders, including the Confederation of British Industry, which recently called for a post-Brexit customs union.

CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn will address the cross-party gathering of MPs and peers on Wednesday morning in a House of Commons committee room, an aide to Cooper said.

“For manufacturing areas across the North and Midlands the customs union is really important in keeping the costs and burdens of trade low,” Cooper said ahead of the meeting. “The country and parliament may still be divided on other aspects of Brexit, but I think there would be a nationwide and parliamentary majority in favor of a good customs union deal.”

Morgan, who was instrumental within the group of Conservative MPs who rebelled against the government in December and forced a guarantee of a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit withdrawal agreement, said the government’s desire for “trade to be as frictionless as possible is right.”

But she added: “MPs need now to understand what that really means and that is why it is important their local businesses have a chance to share their thoughts with us in Westminster.”

Contrasting fortunes of the Four Brexiteers

LONDON — The key Brexiteers in Theresa May’s Cabinet were all out on show Tuesday, ahead of a big Brexit meeting at which the government is expected to finally agree its negotiating stance on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

The meeting — expected Thursday at the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers — will be the culmination of a period of uncertainty that has rumbled on ever since the U.K. triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017.

In that time, May’s fortunes have waxed and waned considerably, and with them the fortunes — and leadership chances — of the four key men who represent Brexiteers in her Cabinet.

With help from bookmakers Ladbrokes, here’s where they all stood on Article 50 day, where they stand now, and how they did on Tuesday as Brexit enters its crucial second phase.

David Davis and his robotic lawnmower

British Secretary of State David Davis | Roland Schlager/AFP via Getty Images

Leadership odds

Article 50 day: 50/1

Today: 25/1

The Brexit secretary was first out of the blocks Tuesday with his contribution to the government’s “Road to Brexit” series of speeches.

For a while after the Conservatives’ disappointing 2017 election, Davis was many people’s tip for next Tory leader, a caretaker to hold the fort during the Brexit process following May’s botched campaign. But after presiding over a string of parliamentary retreats over Brexit — most notably over the publication of Brexit impact analyses that were initially blocked — his star has dimmed a little. He has also faced constant questions about his relative importance inside the Brexit negotiation team, compared to Olly Robbins, May’s EU sherpa, who now leads a Cabinet Office unit dedicated to Brexit.

The point of Tuesday’s address, delivered to an audience of business leaders in Vienna, was to reassure the EU that the U.K. is not interested in undercutting the bloc in the global marketplace by dropping standards and regulations around workers’ rights, environmental protections and financial services regulation. It also contained a commitment that the U.K. wouldn’t heavily subsidize any British firms that could then out-compete EU ones, dressed up as a call for rules to prevent the EU doing the same to Britain.

But the speech will be remembered for Davis’ decision to reassure us that Brexit will not plunge Britain “into a ‘Mad Max’-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.”

We won’t dwell on Davis’s unique reading of the “Mad Max” franchise — in which brutal gangs maraud a post-apocalyptic desert in armored vehicles — as a comment on the consequences of cutting red tape in the automobile sector. However, Davis may have been disappointed to see that comment be the part of his speech most widely picked up by the media, particularly those skeptical about Brexit. It led to more than one piece questioning why, if Davis has ruled out Mad Max, why has he not ruled out other dystopian Brexit scenarios such as “Blade Runner” Brexit or “Hunger Games” Brexit. The public need answers.

One thing we did learn was that, while Davis was speaking, a Swedish-made robot lawnmower (the existence of which was exclusively revealed by POLITICO) was seeing to his lawn back in North Yorkshire.

Boris Johnson and his ‘great swollen throbbing umbilicus of trade’

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives in Downing street for the weekly Cabinet meeting in London on February 20, 2018 | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Leadership odds

Article 50 day: 9/2

Today: 8/1

A year ago, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was a good bet to be the next Conservative leader, but since then he has been supplanted at the top of the pile by the darling of Tory members and backbench Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg (who on Article 50 day was 50/1 to be the party’s next leader and is now the favorite at 7/2).

Johnson’s much-anticipated speech last week, the first of the government’s “Road to Brexit” series, failed to improve his standing, which has been diminished by a succession of unforced errors — creating confusion around the status of a U.K. detainee in Iran, a gaffe about war deaths in Libya — and by concerns among backbenchers that his much-discussed leadership ambitions have become a distraction for an already-weak government.

Johnson’s appearance in the House of Commons Tuesday, while not technically a speech, did lay out more of his thinking on Brexit, and focused on his ambitious vision of a road bridge connecting the U.K. to the European continent.

Claiming that the Channel Tunnel was “likely to be full within the next seven years,” Johnson said the bridge project that he briefly discussed with French President Emmanuel Macron at an Anglo-French summit last month should be a matter of “legitimate reflection” and laid out an “ambition” for it to be entirely privately funded. He compared the bridge to his vision of a U.K.-EU trade deal, which he predicted, vividly, would create a “great swollen throbbing umbilicus of trade” between the two sides.

But asked by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry how it is possible for the U.K. to diverge from EU regulations, tariffs and other aspects of trade, as Johnson wants, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland — a matter, she pointed out, that his 5,000-word speech last week did not mention — Johnson said “there is no reason whatsoever” that the U.K. could not leave the customs union and the single market while still maintaining “frictionless trade” across the border. But he declined to say how.

Michael Gove and his delighted farmers

Michael Gove addresses delegates at the National Farmers’ Union annual conference at the International Conference Centre on February 20, 2018 in Birmingham, England | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Leadership odds

Article 50 day: 25/1

Today: 8/1

Had he cared to visit the National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham on Tuesday, Johnson might have looked enviously at a minister whose leadership prospects are heading in the other direction.

Michael Gove was a backbench MP when Article 50 was triggered, consigned to the wilderness after a failed attempt to steal the leadership from under Johnson’s nose back in July 2016. (A contest from which, of course, Theresa May emerged triumphant.)

However, returned to the Cabinet in June 2017 as environment secretary, Gove has re-cast himself as a Brexiteer eco-warrior delivering what he calls a Green Brexit.

He delighted his audience at the NFU conference by giving unequivocal commitments that the U.K. would not sign any post-Brexit trade deals with other countries that “undercut” U.K. farmers “on animal welfare or environmental standards.”

Just such a trade deal with the U.S., Australia or New Zealand is the British farming industry’s worst fear, and they were happy to hail a minister committed to protecting them from it. Gove said his view was not at odds with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox on this, telling the Huffington Post that he and Fox not only sing from “the same hymn sheet, we finish each other’s sentences.” He also gave farmers cause to hope the U.K. might adopt a liberal immigration policy toward seasonal workers, telling his hosts that while they would have to wait for the Home Office to confirm the U.K.’s post-Brexit immigration policies, he personally had found the NFU’s case for a seasonal workers’ scheme “compelling.”

He also said he didn’t mind not being assigned a “Road to Brexit” speech by the government, insisting Davis and Johnson — “the Messi and Ronaldo of the Cabinet” — were more than equal to the task. Points for charm.

Liam Fox and the nine trade commissioners

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox arrives in Downing Street for the weekly Cabinet meeting on February 20, 2018 in London, England | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Leadership odds

Article 50 day: 66/1

Today: 100/1

In fairness to Liam Fox, his bit in the great Brexit drama — securing all those non-EU free-trade deals — comes after the U.K. has left the European Union, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the international trade secretary has been relatively peripheral to the government’s preparations for EU exit. A leadership challenger in the July 2016 contest, he is now way behind the pack (although so was Rees-Mogg this time last year, so anything is possible).

His was the most low-key address of the day, delivered to an audience of business leaders at the EEF manufacturers’ organization conference in London. He declined to go into detail about the government’s Brexit negotiating plans, but did set out how he sees the U.K.’s free-trading future.

The country’s new trade commissioners, operating in nine regions of the world, will have much more freedom to formulate trade policy and be “free from the constraints of Whitehall,” Fox said.

New officials have recently been appointed in South Asia, China and North America who, along with their counterparts elsewhere in the world, would have “much more autonomy, free from the constraints of Whitehall targets, to do what works best in their region to improve trade,” he said.

David Davis: No ‘race to the bottom’ post Brexit

LONDON — The U.K. will not undercut EU businesses on workers’ rights and environmental protections, David Davis will pledge on Tuesday.

Speaking to an audience of business leaders in Vienna, the U.K. Brexit secretary will insist that Brexit will not “lead to an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom,” committing the country to “meeting high standards after we leave the EU.” But he will call for a post-Brexit trade deal in which British regulations are recognized by Brussels as comparable to its own.

Davis, who is again touring European countries this week as part of a diplomatic push ahead of next month’s European Council meeting, will call for a system of mutual recognition of standards and continued “close, even-handed cooperation” between regulatory authorities in the U.K. and the EU, to underpin a post-Brexit trade deal.

Mutually high standards will guarantee “fair competition,” a principle of the European economy that the U.K. will continue to “work hard to spread,” Davis is expected to say, according to pre-briefed extracts from his speech in Vienna.

“We will continue our track record of meeting high standards after we leave the European Union,” Davis will say, “Now, I know that for one reason or another there are some people who have sought to question that these really are our intentions.”

“They fear that Brexit could lead to an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, with Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.

“These fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not history, not intention, nor interest.”

U.K. ministers have long insisted that Brexit will not mean a downgrading of standards in areas like financial services regulation, workers’ rights and environmental protections, as it seeks to reassure the EU that even as it leaves the single market, it should still qualify for close trade ties with the bloc.

Davis will insist that the U.K.’s “race to the top … can provide the basis of the trust that means that Britain’s regulators and institutions can continue to be recognized.”

His speech is the third in a series by ministers — dubbed by the government “The Road to Brexit” — which will culminate in a major speech by Prime Minister Theresa May in which she is expected to outline in more explicit detail what kind of future economic relationship the U.K. wants.

Critics of the government’s stance said Davis’ speech was a continuation of the U.K.’s “cake and eat it” approach to the Brexit negotiations.

“David Davis might as well be making the case for staying in the EU,” said Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable. “He appears to be acknowledging the great achievements of the single market — a British idea introduced by a British government — yet the Conservatives want to leave that and the customs union.”

“They want all the advantages of staying in the single market and customs union while leaving it, which is clearly an absurd negotiating position,” Cable added.

However, Josh Hardie, deputy director genera, of the Confederation of British Industry, said businesses would “welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of the benefits of frictionless trade, and the U.K. Government’s commitment to maintaining high standards to keep people and products safe.”

“Evidence, not ideology should guide the U.K.’s thinking on a close future relationship with the EU,” he added.

The optics of a cabinet reshuffle: PR vs reality

Reshuffles are a chance to revive the fortunes of a Prime Minister by changing the faces of their Cabinet and Government. January’s offered much but delivered less; the occupants of key Cabinet positions remained in place after all. May’s big beasts stood their ground, seemingly immovable; Justine Greening was the most prominent and the only woman to exit the Cabinet. The optics of Theresa May’s reshuffle became, at this point, about increasing diversity. But this neither told the real diversity story of the reshuffle, nor made an adequate case for diversity in the executive. Increasing diversity in their Cabinets appears ...

Merkel: Post-Brexit trade deal need not mean ‘cherry-picking’

The U.K. and the EU can find a “fair balance” in Brexit trade talks that would not mean the U.K. “cherry-picking” the most beneficial aspects of single market access, Angela Merkel said Friday.

Speaking in Berlin after meeting Theresa May, the German chancellor insisted she was not “frustrated” by the U.K.’s failure so far to give a detailed account of its goals in the future economic relationship with the EU — “just curious.”

However, she appeared to offer an olive branch by suggesting that the U.K.’s hopes of a bespoke deal may be achievable. Asked about bespoke arrangements — as opposed to the starker options of single market membership or a Canada-style trade deal — she said it was “not a given” that such an arrangement “means cherry-picking.”

“In the end the outcome needs to be a fair balance that deviates from the single market and is not as close a partnership as we’ve had, but I think one can find that,” she said, according to the official translation of her remarks.

Merkel’s characterization of her post-Brexit preferred trade deal as one that is “as close as possible but … different to what Britain currently has as a member,” will be welcomed by U.K. officials pursuing a middle-way between full participation in the single market and a limited free trade agreement that would be unlikely to provide deep trade ties for British financial services firms.

May, who will set out the U.K.’s goals for the future security and law enforcement relationship with the EU at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, countered suggestions she has not been forthcoming with the U.K.’s plan, saying the Brexit negotiation “isn’t just a one way street.”

However, she confirmed that she would be “saying something in the coming weeks” on her plans for the future economic partnership.

Her Cabinet is yet to finally approve the U.K.’s negotiating stance, but May is expected to deliver a speech outlining the U.K.’s aims in more detail at some point between next week — when ministers will meet for an awayday to settle outstanding issues — and the March European Council summit.

Cabinet ministers are split between those who want to align closely with EU rules and regulations in most areas to maintain the closest possible trade ties and those who want to diverge from EU rules, allowing more room for maneuver in post-Brexit trade deals with other countries.

“I want to ensure that U.K. companies have the maximum freedom to trade and operate within German markets — and for German businesses to do the same in the U.K.,” May said.

The two leaders met for over an hour, a U.K. official said, covering Brexit, but also the U.K. and Germany’s interest in maintaining the Iran nuclear deal, and countering shared security threats.

Officials traveling with May expressed satisfaction with the meeting, pointing out that Merkel was offered a chance to express frustration with the U.K., in response to a journalist’s question — and declined.

Brexit EU citizens offer extended to Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein

LONDON — People from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein already living in the U.K. will be offered the same rights after Brexit as those offered to EU citizens, the British government said.

U.K. officials met counterparts from the three ‘European Economic Area / European Free Trade Association’ states this week emerging with a deal to extend the so-called “settled status” offer to EU citizens to the relatively small number of Norwegian, Icelandic and Liechtensteiner nationals living in the U.K.

The deal covers residency, health care and pension rights as well as mutual recognition of professional qualifications. It will affect 18,000 Norwegians in the U.K., 2,000 Icelandic nationals and 40 Liechtenstein nationals. A reciprocal offer will cover 15,000 British nationals in Norway, 800 in Iceland and 60 in Liechtenstein.

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