Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Tory party faces ‘catastrophic’ Brexit split, says former minister

The U.K. Conservative party will suffer a “catastrophic split” if Theresa May pursues her Brexit plan, according to a former minister who said as many as 80 of her MPs are set to reject it.

Steve Baker, who quit as a junior Brexit minister following the agreement on the plan by the Cabinet at the prime minister’s Chequers country residence, told the Press Association that he expected a show-down at the party’s conference, which begins later this month.

“We are reaching the point now where it is extremely difficult to see how we can rescue the Conservative party from a catastrophic split if the Chequers proposals are carried forward,” he said.

He said he hoped that Tory members at the conference would unite “around the idea that we can either leave having accepted the EU offer or we have to leave with nothing agreed.” He wants to shift the government toward negotiating a Canada-style trade deal with the EU.

But David Gauke, the justice secretary, told the BBC’s Today program that MPs should get behind the prime minister. “There isn’t an alternative credible plan out there,” he said.

Separately, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and standard bearer for Brexiteers, used his weekly Daily Telegraph column to further burnish his leadership pitch with a call for lower taxes.

“We should say that tax henceforward will not go up. That’s it. No new taxes and no increase in rates,” he wrote.

Michel Barnier did not tell MPs that UK’s Brexit plan is ‘dead’

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier did not tell British MPs that the U.K.’s Brexit proposals were “dead,” contrary to a Labour MP’s recollection of a meeting in Brussels Monday.

The claim — which is significant because it suggested that Theresa May’s strategy in the negotiations is already fatally undermined — emerged in questioning of Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab at a separate committee hearing in Westminster Wednesday.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who was present at the Barnier meeting, reported that the chief negotiator had said in French “les propositions sonts mortes [the proposals are dead].”

But a transcript of the Brussels meeting published Friday does not record Barnier using those words, despite being asked three times by different MPs if the U.K.’s white paper was “dead.” Instead he adopted similar language to his previous statements on the unacceptability to the EU27 of the “facilitated customs arrangement” — under which the U.K. would collect import tariffs on the EU’s behalf — and the proposed “common rule book” for goods and agri-food. He did, however, praise parts of the U.K.’s plan.

“When it comes to those two proposals, there is a real problem of substance for us, because they would weaken and would lead to the unravelling of the single market. That is why they are not acceptable, so you cannot ask us to make concessions on the very foundations of the European Union,” he said in answer to a question from committee chair Hilary Benn.

“How could we accept conditions that would run counter to our economic interests, which are based on the single market, which we built together with you? Why would we agree to weakening that single market today?” Barnier added.

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Theresa May’s ‘bunker mentality’ Brexit

LONDON — Tory MPs are not just angry about what Theresa May is doing on Brexit, they are also livid about how she is doing it.

According to several leading party figures, May’s recent handling of negotiations with the rest of the EU has resurrected concerns that she governs with a “bunker mentality” — trusting only a select group of confidants and often disregarding input from those outside her inner circle, including many Cabinet ministers.

The discontent stems largely from the build-up to the Cabinet’s away day at May’s Chequers country residence in July, at which she won agreement on a negotiating stance for Brexit. Ministers say they were only presented with key papers the evening before the crunch meeting, a move that opponents of the Chequers plan have interpreted as a tactic to bounce her top team into backing the plan.

While much of the opposition to the prime minister’s Brexit plan focuses on substantive policy, growing frustration among those frozen out of May’s inner circle fuels Tory fears she does not listen to colleagues and cannot unite the party just as Brexit negotiations enter their crucial final stages.

May’s defenders say her centralized style is well within the norms set by her recent predecessors in Downing Street. Even some of the prime minister’s critics say allegations she has been “captured” by senior civil servants — chiefly her Brexit adviser Olly Robbins — are wrong.

“Theresa May’s disregard of the constitutional norms of Cabinet government would make Iraq War-era Tony Blair blush” — Stewart Jackson, ex-chief of staff to David Davis

Others have drawn loaded comparisons to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “sofa government” style, with its failure in the run-up to the Iraq war to consult all Cabinet ministers on key decisions.

“Theresa May’s disregard of the constitutional norms of Cabinet government would make Iraq War-era Tony Blair blush. And he had a three-figure parliamentary majority,” said Stewart Jackson, ex-chief of staff to David Davis, the Brexit secretary who resigned over the Chequers plan. “The prime minister’s modus operandi has always been a bunker mentality, little or no trust beyond the inner circle and an over-reliance on those who unquestionably validate her point of view … It’s quite concerning and it will ultimately be her undoing quite soon,” he said.

Out of the loop

Jackson is not alone in his diagnosis.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the influential European Research Group of Brexiteer Conservative MPs — who are determined to undo the Chequers plan — questioned whether “Cabinet government is going ahead as one might expect” at a Brexit committee hearing in parliament before the summer break.

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Jackson said May has sidelined the once all-powerful Strategy and Negotiations Cabinet sub-committee (the so-called “Brexit War Cabinet”), on which sat a delicate balance of ex-Remainers, like Chancellor Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark, and Brexiteers like Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who also resigned over Chequers). Jackson said May increasingly relies on Robbins and his Europe Unit within the Cabinet Office as the real engine of Brexit policy.

“It’s clear that only a minority of key ministers — [Cabinet Office Minister David] Lidington, Clark and Hammond — were in the loop and the rest of the Cabinet were bounced with hours to spare and presented with a 120-page document on the complex and politically challenging Chequers proposals,” he said.

Bernard Jenkin, Brexiteer MP and chair of the House of Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, gave a similar analysis at a hearing with acting Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill before parliament’s summer break.

“By the time the Chequers Cabinet took place there was a pre-determination to pursue a course of action. It was a rubber-stamping exercise,” he said at the hearing. “I gather there was a great deal of discussion but the prime minister had determined the policy.” Jenkin also drew comparisons with Blair.

A senior government official familiar with Cabinet preparations for Chequers, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that Downing Street had made a “unilateral decision” in the build-up, presenting the key paper to ministers hours before the meeting.

“It landed on the day. No one saw it coming,” the official said.

“Robbins is not a bad guy, trying to capture the PM in some Rasputin-esque manner. He’s just the one who is there, giving clear advice” — Senior government official

But not all of May’s political opponents are convinced she deserves criticism. Hilary Benn a former Labour Cabinet minister under Blair who now chairs the House of Commons Brexit committee, countered that May’s approach is “fairly normal.”

“For two years the Cabinet had been in a state of open disagreement about what the right policy to pursue was,” said Benn, who is by no means a natural defender of May. “It is the job of government to act in the national interest and not the party interest and it needed to be brought to a conclusion. In the end, prime ministers are very influential, by virtue of their position, in ensuring that that happens.

“Ultimately it’s for Cabinet ministers to decide what they think of a proposal and if they’re not happy about it then they know what they can do and two members of the Cabinet chose to resign.”

A senior government official pointed out that several papers were issued to ministers in the week prior to Chequers. The final paper was indeed only made available the day before meeting, but the official insisted that all Cabinet ministers received it at the same time.

Inner circle

The allegation that May takes advice from a small inner-circle predates Chequers and even the Brexit negotiations themselves. Before the 2017 general election, at which May lost her parliamentary majority, the prime minister faced frequent accusations of running the country by clique, with all major decisions emanating from the small cabal of herself and her co-chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

Her chiefs of staff resigned after the election debacle, but a third senior official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 2018 Brexit inner circle now consists of chief of staff Gavin Barwell, Chief Whip Julian Smith, deputy chief of staff Joanna (known as JoJo) Penn and May’s Europe adviser Denzil Davidson. Because of the paramount importance of managing parliament, Downing Street Director of Legislative Affairs Nikki da Costa is also in the tent.

But it is Robbins who has become a lightning rod for the bunker mentality critique. Brexiteers have long seen him as the personification of the alleged civil service Remainer deep state that it trying to push the U.K. toward the softest of Brexits.

Theresa May’s top Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins | Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images

He has attracted the ire of some ministers, a fourth official said, for not taking on board policy advice from across the Cabinet table. One Cabinet minister in particular, the official said, had made specific suggestions to Robbins at a Brexit sub-committee meeting shortly before the Chequers summit, and received an indication they would be incorporated into the plan — only for the papers to eventually surface with no reference to the policy.

The second official admitted Downing Street’s handling of Chequers could have been better.

“The lion’s share of the tensions are part of the process … You were always going to have strong personalities in the process, but Robbins could have handled the interpersonal considerations better,” the official said.

The first senior government official said Robbins “has more say on Brexit policy than any Cabinet minister,” but they downplayed the extent of his influence over the prime minister’s decision-making.

“Robbins is not a bad guy, trying to capture the PM in some Rasputin-esque manner,” the official said. “He’s just the one who is there, giving clear advice … the Olly Robbins ‘capture’ stuff is bullshit. It makes her sound stupid, which she’s not. It’s her choice.”

Theresa May finds herself under ever-increasing pressure | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Crucially, while Robbins has become something of a bête noire for Brexiteers, even Rees-Mogg in a pre-recess exchange with Robbins at the Brexit committee, made clear where he and allies really place the blame.

“It is worrying that … things were going on that the department meant to be in charge of it was unaware of,” he said. “That should be no blame to you at all, because you were answerable to the prime minister.”

The first official argued that May should have waited until the last minute — fall this year, the deadline for a Brexit deal — before pushing through Chequers, because of the inevitable anger such a move would provoke.

“Now everyone has had a summer to plot — to question whether there is anyone else they would rather have lead them,” the official said.

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Liberal Democrat leader to step down once Brexit is ‘resolved’

LONDON — Vince Cable said on Friday he would step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats once Brexit is “resolved.”

The 75-year-old former business secretary will first oversee reforms to the party, which he says will turn it into a “movement for moderates.”

He has launched a consultation that proposes a new class of supporters who pay nothing to sign up to the party’s values and that entitles them to vote in a leadership election. He also wants to widen the leadership pool beyond its small group of 12 MPs, which include former leader Tim Farron.

Cable refused to put an “artificial timeline” on his exit, pledging to stay on for local elections next May, in case there is a snap general election, according to a report of the speech by Sky News. 

Cable admitted meeting other people trying to set up new parties during the speech in London, indicating the Liberal Democrats are “open to working together with people from other parties.”

“When democracy can’t deliver, the frustration opens up a space for various forms of ugly populism. We have seen this summer it is offered as verbal attacks on Muslims and Jews, and wall-to-wall Brexit, and that is it. I think it is a worrying picture, and as the leader of the Liberal Democrats I have actually asked how I and my party can protect and develop liberal democracy in Britain at a time when it is in grave danger, and I am tempted to say the gravest since the 1930s,” he said.

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