Splits in UK PM’s Cabinet leave world guessing on Brexit
London, United Kingdom — Divisions in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet generated confusion over Brexit Friday after a series of mixed messages on how and when Britain will leave the European Union (EU).
Following an interview with Sky News in which he said Britain planned to begin formal Brexit talks early next year, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quickly put in his place by May’s office on Thursday.
“The government’s position has not changed — we will not trigger Article 50 before the end of 2016,” a Downing Street spokesman said, referring to the EU treaty article outlining how a member state leaves.
May has kept the public message vague, saying only that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she is aiming for the “best deal,” and refusing to provide any further commentary before Britain triggers the exit procedure.
But it is clear there are differences of opinion in her government between those who favor “hard” Brexit — quickly severing all links with EU institutions — and “soft” Brexit — which could retain access to the single market.
Speaking Friday at the end of a two-day visit to Britain, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said: “Honestly, I leave London with the feeling that the government is undecided on how and when they should trigger Article 50.”
Many British commentators share that view.
“Day after day after day, the differences and the nuances of difference between those who are at the top of the party and different ministers, and the prime minister, have become very, very clear,” London School of Economics Prof. Tony Travers said.
The Spectator magazine’s Tom Goodenough wrote: “By keeping shtum (quiet) about Brexit and pledging that there will be “no running commentary” on Article 50, the prime minister may have saved herself the trouble of worrying about having to go back on her words.
“But she has also created a Brexit vacuum. And it’s no surprise that the likes of Boris are trying to fill the gap,” he added.
Former London Mayor Johnson, once seen as a top contender to be prime minister, had already ruffled feathers in Downing Street when he appeared in a video by euroskeptic pressure group “Change Britain.”
“Brexit means Brexit and that means delivering on their instructions and restoring UK control over our laws, borders, money and trade,” he said in the message.
Brexit minister David Davis was also rebuked this month for saying it was “very improbable” Britain would stay in the single market.
“He’s setting out his view that it’s improbable,” May’s spokesman said afterwards, adding that the premier “recognizes that people have their differing views.”
‘All very difficult’
The three ministers with the biggest role to play in getting Britain out of the EU — Johnson, Davis and international trade minister Liam Fox — all favor a “hard” Brexit.
This could see Britain leaving the single market and operate on World Trade Organization rules internationally, while also imposing strict curbs on immigration from the EU.
The trio all campaigned for Britain to leave the EU in June’s referendum and are regularly referred to by the British tabloids as the “Three Brexiteers.”
In his interview on Thursday, Johnson dismissed as “baloney” the notion that Britain would have to continue to allow free movement of people within the EU if it wanted access to the single market.
European leaders have insisted that the two must go hand-in-hand.
“The two things have nothing to do with each other. We should go for a jumbo free trade deal and take back control of our immigration policy,” Johnson said.
On the other side, finance minister Philip Hammond is among those reportedly backing a less hardline approach that would retain more ties with the EU, particularly for the economically crucial City of London financial hub.
George Osborne — finance minister under David Cameron, who resigned after the Brexit vote — signaled in a Financial Times interview on Friday that he too wanted a “soft” Brexit.
The FT has reported that the “turf war” in the government was unsettling business leaders and that Hammond had told business chiefs in a recent meeting that it was “all very difficult at the moment.”