Brexit talks begin: It's not where you go, it's how you get there

Julian Harris
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Theresa May's Re-shuffled Cabinet Meets For The First Time
David Davis will commence Brexit talks with EU negotiator Michel Barnier (Source: Getty)

Government spin doctors, on both sides of the Atlantic, like to describe any revelation surrounding the inner workings of their administration as a mere "process story". In the US such stories are dismissed as "inside baseball".

People only want to know the outcome of policies, reporters are told – no one cares about the road that gets us there.

With Brexit, however, the process behind the UK's extraction from the European Union is undeniably crucial, and increasingly divisive.

Theresa May's more loyal colleagues insist the Prime Minister will push ahead with her plan to deliver a clean Brexit – thus exiting the Single Market and customs union – by the time Article 50's two-year countdown strikes in March 2019.

Read more: Brexit negotiations: This is what will happen on Monday

Reports over the weekend said May will this week kick off a two-year parliamentary session, designed to pack in all the necessary legislative changes to meet the deadline.

Much has been written about the PM's faults in recent days, but one of her strengths is said to be an impressively methodological and single-minded way of working that suggests this ambitious two-year timeframe could be achievable. Her supporters, who maintain that no deal is better than a bad deal, argue that if the plan fails, it will be down to the EU.

Yet some of the PM's more outspoken colleagues are making different noises. Chancellor Philip Hammond makes the process sound far more flexible. "What we put in place may not be a single arrangement that endures forever," he said on Sunday. "It may be an arrangement which lasts for a couple of years as a temporary measure."

Emboldened by May's election flop and the subsequent weakening of her position, Hammond appears to be speaking for the many people who believe a comprehensive free trade deal – of the type the PM says she wants – cannot feasibly be sealed in the next 21 months, given the complexities of the divorce. A quirky consequence of 8 June's shock electoral outcome has been Hammond's transformation into the voice of a softer and perhaps slower Brexit.

Read more: Government says it has been "crystal clear" on approach to Brexit talks

His words will be warmly received by City execs wary of a so-called cliff edge. Business groups are fearful of a sudden inability to recruit sufficient international labour, while bosses in numerous sectors such as aviation, automation and finance point to doomsday scenarios if "no deal" is abruptly announced towards the end of the Article 50 window.

This morning, as David Davis embarks on negotiations, the Brexit secretary insists he is seeking "a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, a deal like no other in history." If that means an FTA even close to being on par with membership of the single market and customs union, business leaders would be extremely happy. Their worries, however, are around how we get there, and – even if it is possible – how long it will realistically take.

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