Britain’s leadership problems are gobbling up crucial time for Brexit negotiations.
B oris Johnson pulled no punches in his highly-anticipated speech before the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week. In the bombastic foreign secretary’s vivid invocation of Brexit, he depicted the British people as a muzzled lion. Now, he proclaimed, is the time to “let that lion roar.”
Before casting the British public in the title role, it had seemed that Mr. Johnson fancied it for himself. On the eve of the conference, he used an interview with The Sun newspaper to draw four “red lines” on the UK’s Brexit strategy, which went further than the more conciliatory position set out by Prime Minister Theresa May in her milestone speech in Florence last week.
Whereas Ms. May’s proposals in Florence were carefully phrased to balance the differences between the cabinet’s so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexiteers, Mr. Johnson’s intervention ran roughshod over the governmental grey area that the prime minister had been so keen to set out.
Ms. May told her Florentine audience that a post-Brexit transition period would be “around two years”, but Mr. Johnson told The Sun that it should last “not a second more” than two years after Britain formally leaves the EU. The prime minister’s wording was likely designed to bring together ideologically disparate elements of her cabinet - like the ‘hard’ Brexiteer Mr. Johnson, and Chancellor Philip Hammond, who is known to favour a lengthier transition which, in his view, will limit the damage to business.
While the differences were subtle, Mr. Johnson’s interventions have further exposed the leadership vacuum which has threatened to engulf Ms. May’s government since June’s general election. Faced with Jeremy Corbyn’s resurgent Labour Party, an awkward torpor has gripped Conservative ministers and Britain’s civil service. With each day, the machinations of her foreign secretary get closer to derailing Britain’s exit strategy.
The Brexit beast
Many have interpreted Mr. Johnson’s gambit as a sign of anxiety over the type of Brexit that Ms. May appears to be leaning towards. He pointedly argued that Britain should not accept any new EU rules or European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings during the transition period, while the prime minister’s aides have reportedly come to see this as inevitable.
The foreign secretary inevitably knew his move would be seen as a sign of insubordination. More importantly, however, he would also have been confident that Ms. May would not heed the many calls for his resignation that followed. If she were to sack her foreign secretary, a leadership challenge would surely follow.
Her premiership has been a feast for the Tory vultures ever since she lost her majority, and Mr. Johnson was stepping in for his pound of hard Brexit flesh.
There was nothing carnivorous about what Mr. Johnson had to say at his conference speech, however. Speculation of a leadership challenge was put to bed as he insisted fervently on his loyalty to his boss’ agenda. “Based on that Florence speech on whose every syllable, I can tell you the whole cabinet is united,” Mr. Johnson insisted in Manchester.
However, for some, the damage to Ms. May’s government has already been done, not only in the eyes of the British public, but in the EU too. “Please sack Johnson, because we want a clear position on who is responsible for the British position,” said Manfred Weber, a German MEP and leader of the European People’s Party, in an unprecedented intervention.
A rudderless ship?
Was this week’s drama just a function of Mr. Johnson’s well-known leadership ambitions, or a symptom of unresolved divisions over Brexit? Is Ms. May’s cabinet just not quite watertight, or has it been a rudderless ship all along?
Answers to such questions will remain scarce for as long the government’s decision-making process remains opaque, but the saga is not the only sign that Britain’s leadership is paralysed.
“As a result of the prime minister’s damaged authority, other departments have become more important,” said Steven Booth, Director of Policy and Research at the London-based Open Europe think tank. “For one, the Treasury [Mr. Hammond’s department] has particularly helped set the agenda around the transition period” he told The World Weekly.
Some changes are more difficult to decipher. After news emerged last week that Olly Robbins, the UK’s most senior Brexit-oriented civil servant, was leaving the Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU) to set up a new unit in Ms. May’s Cabinet Office, many took it as a clear sign of shifting power bases and rivalries within government.
Mr. Booth warns against reading too much into it, however, pointing to Mr. Robbins’ already close relationship with the PM before the move.
He also highlights the important ways in which the government is finding more unity. “At one point there was an almost open discussion in the media among cabinet members. But there is now quite a high degree of consensus across the political establishment on the need for an exit phase of around 2 years.”
“Ministers are also now pretty clear that it will be a ‘standstill’ transition keeping as much of the status quo as possible, and Boris is the only person to say otherwise.”
There has also been little contention over Ms. May’s pledge in Florence to honour Britain’s budget commitments during the transition, effectively amounting to £20 billion - a consensus which would have been unimaginable a few months ago.
Ms. May’s weakness may have opened the door for a free-for-all at first, but it now seems to be pushing the Tories to work as a team - not least for fear of giving way to Mr. Corbyn’s circling sharks. Meanwhile, cracks in the detail are being filled by the civil servants.
The risk, however, is that this new Brexit ecosystem is not up to the task. The EU’s stance is that Britain has not made “sufficient progress” to move towards negotiating an exit deal, insisting on the need to first solve the Irish border conundrum and the final divorce settlement.
The deadlock is not entirely down to Britain’s leadership issues. For example, former ECJ judge Franklin Dehousse recently argued that the EU’s sequencing of the different stages of the negotiations should be dropped, pointing out that it is not obligatory under EU law.
But the UK’s failure to spell out its negotiating position in more detail far eclipses such details, Mr. Dehousse argues. “The greater obstacle is the inability of the UK government to define a coherent project for the future EU/UK relationship,” he told TWW
Ms. May’s Florence speech clarified nothing more on this subject than the desire to strike a deal somewhere between Canada’s CETA arrangement and Norway’s EEA membership. Her hands, however, are tied by a difficult political reality. “Brexit is a story of polarisation,” says Carsten Nickel, a Brussels-based senior risk analyst at research firm Teneo Intelligence, “that has split society, the Conservative party and the Cabinet.”
Ultimately, he argues, the two sides of the negotiating table face totally different realities. “On the UK side is a government under political pressure from this polarisation, and a Prime Minister fighting for survival,” he told TWW. “But on the other side is a group of bureaucrats waiting to discuss technical issues.”
Time is running out for the government to translate its broad aims, which have been clarified on issues like migration and ECJ supervision, into a detailed proposal. There may not be time for Britain to reach a consensus under the government’s organic, open-plan leadership over Brexit, even if it avoids more Boris-induced wobbles.
The British lion can roar all it wants but, for now, what comes out is still a cacophony of competing voices.