Now ministers have had their holidays to brush up on what actually might be possible to ensure Brexit means Brexit, what will be the best negotiating strategy to take?
There are still many, especially in Parliament, who cannot accept the people's vote and will sow confusion by diluting what leaving the EU means. One grumpy sacked minister remarked she had come to terms with Brexit so long as it meant being in the Single Market and having free movement of labour. That’s not Brexit, that’s Remain!
We can now see that two strategies will compete for the approval of Theresa May and her Cabinet.
The first is to spend an inexorable amount of time analysing all the complexities thrown up by the myriad agreements and treaties signed by the UK over the last 40 years. There shall be great consultations and a wooing of lobbyists, vested interests and devolved governments to take account of their concerns. From all of these considerations will come the argument the UK should not rush into anything, in the belief that a considered approach will provide the best deal possible. Already we have had banks saying negotiations should take five years, not two.
All manner of obstacles will be suggested that might delay the arrival of “B-Day”, from the German and French elections next year, to the legal process in the UK, and the possibility of the Scottish Parliament, the Lords and even the Commons voting against the will of the people.
A day does not pass without a further hurdle being proffered that could prevent the triggering of the Article 50 mechanism until late 2017.
Unsurprisingly this is the position most favoured by Remainers. They hope to frustrate Brexit so that it never happens or becomes meaningless by failing to deliver what can be described as a genuine exit from the EU.
Their strategy is to delay B-Day until late into 2019 so that it becomes the focus of the General Election due in June 2020, putting Brexit in doubt until after that election. There are many in the Labour Party in particular who hope that they could thus defeat the Conservative government on anti-Brexit sentiment. Be under no illusions, such uncertainty would be highly damaging to the City and UK businesses.
The second position is to recognise that no deal is better than a bad deal and that all that is required for “Leave to mean Leave” is for our government to identify the goals it aspires to and what its non-negotiables are – and then to trigger Article 50. No later than the end of the first quarter of 2017, preferably sooner, should be enough time for that process to be completed.
The UK can then offer a deal based on our current position of zero tariffs, allowing EU members to enjoy their trading surplus with us in return for ending free movement of labour. This would mean B-Day would happen at the beginning of 2019 – well before any General Election momentum builds up.
Simultaneous with triggering Article 50, the UK would make clear that, if the resulting two-year long negotiations fail to meet the government’s red lines – such as passporting covered under the new Mifid 2 equivalence regime – the UK will walk away and operate under World Trade Organisation rules. The EU’s exporters would suffer the most, making an eventual deal very likely.
At the same time, free trade agreements would be negotiated informally. At the last count, there were over 20 nations that had signalled an interest in agreeing an FTA. If there’s a problem, it is in consummating the deals in time rather than finding willing partners. On the morning the UK leaves the EU – two years plus one day – we would celebrate our independence through a global Britain FTA signing day with non-EU countries around the world.
It is between these two outline positions that the Cabinet will have to decide. The question of denying free movement of labour with EU states will be non-negotiable, payments for membership and in support of programmes such as the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies will be ended, and the UK will operate outside the EU customs union external tariff barrier. Access to the Single Market will be at least on the same basis as the US, China and Japan, and we can trade freely without tariffs with the developing nations that are desperate for our business.