Brexit bargaining begins ahead of Conservative Party conference
Westminster watchers are again decamping for a few days of agenda-setting speeches, hard-hitting policy debates, backroom lobbying and late night parties as the Conservative Party conference kicks off in Birmingham tomorrow.
Despite the raft of pre-conference announcements, including a new review into employment law and the ditching of some mandatory medical tests for people deemed unfit for work, there is only one item on the agenda: Brexit.
With so much speculation and Westminster not really back into gear following the summer break, it isn’t just think tanks, trade associations and special interest groups who want their voice to be heard. With Theresa May‘s grip on power tightening, MPs and ministers are also using the four-day West Midlands break to line up some face-time with the new Prime Minister, and hopefully get some of their items onto May’s Brexit shopping list.
We should be looking for a good Brexit – not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit.
– Chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond
First out of the doors has been the likely suspects – the long-time Brexit-backers like Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and Peter Lilley. In a new pamphlet issued by Smith’s Centre for Social Justice and the Legatum Institute, which is headed up by Smith’s former protege Baroness Philippa Stroud, the gang call on the Prime Minister to get a move on with triggering Article 50 and for the UK to issue a take-it-or-leave-it bunch of demands to the EU.
Free from the trappings of ministerial office, the MPs state: “The government should now make due haste with sending an Article 50 letter. Trade negotiations can be short and simple. The UK can offer either to carry forward current tariff-free trade with service sector passports, or to fall back on the World Trade Organisation.
“The UK would recommend the former, but could live with the latter. Rather than negotiate, it is just a question of which the EU will choose.”
Simple as that.
Over in Whitehall, the MPs who still have departments to run are also flexing their Brexit muscles. The chancellor Philip Hammond added one more adjective into the mix today, telling The Telegraph he wanted a “good Brexit – not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit”.
He also said the people who voted to leave to UK in the 23 June referendum “do not want to see jobs lost, they do not want to see standards of living decline. So they will expect us to negotiate a solution which delivers the key elements of leaving the EU, regaining our sovereignty, getting control over our borders – but they expect us to do all of that in a way that allows the UK economy to go on growing.”
What that means for immigration is less clear, with Hammond reportedly at odds with some of his colleagues who would like more restrictive border controls and crackdowns on the movement of people.
He said: “Whatever powers we have over immigration into the UK, we will use them responsibly. We will use them in a way that supports the UK economy and we will will certainly not use them to shut out highly-skilled people – whether they are bankers or software engineers or managers in global companies – from the UK when their presence is supporting inward investment and growth in our economy.”
With few clues over what kind of immigration system Theresa May might prefer – and Europe might allow – communities secretary Sajid Javid has been seeking to add Eastern European tradesmen to the list of professionals that will be shown an open door. He told the Financial times he would make sure “the building sector has got whatever it needs” to hit his target to build one million homes by the end of the decade.
“Wherever we end up, the government is determined to get a good deal for Britain. Whether it’s construction or any other sector, we don’t want to make it any more difficult for those industries.”
Meanwhile, over in the illustrious foreign office, while he hasn’t been squabbling for desk space with his other two Brexit ministers, Liam Fox and David Davis, the former mayor of London Boris Johnson has been adding his considerable intellectual heft to the mix:
Our policy is having our cake and eating it. We are pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.
– Secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, Boris Johnson
Good luck, Theresa.