Morning briefing: Divide and dither - sluggish economy - not-so-green Gove
Another day, another contrived bid by Theresa May to exorcise her Brexit demons. This time she’s dividing her “war cabinet” sub-committee into two sub-sub-committees and setting each the task of exploring the two main options for customs after Brexit. Is this a case of divide and rule, or divide and dither?
Brexiters Liam Fox and Michael Gove, plus Remain-supporting David Lidington, have been tasked with looking at May’s preferred “customs partnership” option. This would see the UK collecting tax on behalf of Brussels for imported goods destined for the EU’s single market. Boris Johnson has written the idea off as “crazy” and said it would create "a whole new web of bureaucracy".
Meanwhile, former Remainers Karen Bradley and Greg Clark will be joined by David Davis to explore the Brexiters’ “maximum facilitation” (“max fac”) option. This proposes technology and trusted trader schemes to avoid customs delays.
Both options have the drawback of not solving the Irish border problem. And both have been comprehensively rejected by the EU.
The official thinking on how the groups are configured is that those ministers whose policy areas will be most affected by each proposal are looking into it. But each group also has a majority of individuals who don’t like the option they’re looking at. What’s more, Johnson and Philip Hammond, the ringleaders of the Cabinet factions, have been left out entirely.
A third compromise - “max fac” but with a delay to get the technology ready, during which time we’ll stay in a customs union with the EU - has been shot down as “not a goer” by sources close to the foreign secretary, reports the Times. This is despite Nick Timothy, the prime minister‘s still influential former chief of staff, backing the plan in yesterday‘s Telegraph.
The Irish border looms large over this debate. Michael Gove is worried that the EU’s “backstop” solution, keeping Northern Ireland in regulatory alignment with the EU in many areas after Brexit, would be used as a “Trojan horse” to keep the UK in the EU customs union permanently. Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg has taken the rather simplistic position that we can just keep the border open if both the UK and Ireland want to, and only a “phantom government” would suggest otherwise.
None of this mess was predicted, let alone debated, during the referendum. If the public don’t like the interminable mess the government has gotten itself into, they should get a people’s vote on whatever Brexit deal our dithering prime minister eventually manages to produce.
Quote of the day
“Ingenious options – well-meaning options – have been proposed but rejected by Cabinet sub-Committees, with the limp promise that further ideas will be sought. No doubt the search will intensify – but I doubt it will be successful.”
- Former PM John Major on the government's customs turmoil, in a speech to the Irish embassy in London.
Bank reacts to sluggish economy
The Bank of England has downgraded its UK forecast for GDP growth in 2018 from 1.8% to 1.4%, following a weaker-than-expected start to the year. While the Bank blames the downgrade in part due to “adverse weather”, ONS economic analysis also out yesterday said the economy has been very sluggish with “little impact overall from the bad weather”.
Other factors behind the slowdown include flat manufacturing growth, the construction sector performing poorly and low business investment – all set against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainty.
Tweet of the day
Gove’s not-so-green Brexit
Proposals by Michael Gove’s environment department to ensure green protections are not weakened following Brexit have been called “deeply disappointing” by experts. Is the environment secretary’s promise of a “green Brexit” being exposed as a lie?
Environmental groups including WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have criticised the toothlessness of Gove’s new “world-leading environmental watchdog”, which won’t have the powers to initiate legal action. The government proposals have also failed to enshrine key EU principles in law, such as sustainable development and polluters paying for the damage they cause.
Leave.EU chief exec referred to police
The Electoral Commission has referred Liz Bilney, the chief executive of Leave.EU, to police on suspicion of breaking electoral law, the Times has revealed.
The elections watchdog said last month that there were reasonable grounds to suspect Bilney had delivered an incomplete and incorrect spending return for the Brexit campaign group after the referendum.
Knowingly or recklessly making a false declaration of spending is a criminal offence under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. It is punishable by up to a year in prison or an unlimited fine.
Bilney said: “I personally will defend any charges that may be brought against me.” She added that no charges had been brought against her at present and she remained confident that none would be.
Leave.EU founder Arron Banks accused the commission of pursuing a “ridiculous witch-hunt” against the pro-Brexit campaign and added: “Anyone who is reported to the police, we will defend robustly.”
Video of the day
Labour’s Alison McGovern, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, takes Jacob Rees-Mogg to task on the BBC’s Daily Politics over: a) why technology doesn’t solve the Irish border issue; b) why hard Brexit means more food insecurity for the UK’s most vulnerable; c) why unilateral trade deals are no silver bullet.
More Brexit news…
Pro-Europe Labour backbenchers are fighting to keep the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to reconsider his opposition to membership of the European Economic Area, as new polling for the People’s Vote campaign confirms majority support for a vote on the Brexit deal. 53% want such a vote with 31% opposed, according to a poll of 2,005 people by Opinium for the People's Vote campaign. Among Labour voters the majority is much bigger, 69% to 18%.
Of course Brexit won’t fix the black hole in our defence budget. Our economic growth has already been hit, and we’ve not even left the EU yet. A smaller economy means fewer tax receipts in future to pay for things like boats and tanks - or indeed, public services.
Door opens to keep Britain in EU (security) (Politico)
Top Brexit comment
Philip Collins: Theresa May should sack grandstanding Boris Johnson (Times)
Quentin Peel: It’s the Mail that’s destroying faith in our democracy (InFacts)
Today, Friday 11 May
|11:00||Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Simon McDonald, talks Brexit foreign policy at RUSI think tank|
|12:00||UN special rapporteur on racism to present findings of inquiry into impact of Brexit vote on racial equality in UK|
|PM||Geraint Davies MP private members' bill for referendum on Brexit deal in Commons|