Paris Gourtsoyannis: No cure for Theresa May's summertime blues

Striking a Brexit deal will be hard. Avoiding a Brexit betrayal narrative will be harder, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Jacob Rees-Mogg has condemned talk of a £36bn payment to the EU, ignoring the leverage cash could have. Picture: Getty
Jacob Rees-Mogg has condemned talk of a £36bn payment to the EU, ignoring the leverage cash could have. Picture: Getty

You would think a bit of sunshine and a 99p soft-serve would make everyone happy, but summer holidays can be battlegrounds.

When you’re in charge of a ungrateful brood, always arguing and talking over one another, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. And that’s just Theresa May’s cabinet.

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No wonder she’s decided to escape it all to a fully-sovereign mountain idyll that nonetheless retains access to the European single market. Her hope for a Swiss-clockwork Brexit can only have been bolstered by a side-trip to Italy, where a hotel lounge pianist was so inspired by Mrs May’s presence that he bashed out a rendition of God Save the Queen.

Like so many of us, on her return Mrs May will have those holiday dreams dashed.

There are less than three weeks until the start of the next round of talks with the EU in Brussels. Unless the deadlock is broken on three of the toughest issues facing UK and EU negotiators – the status of the Irish border, the scale of the Brexit financial settlement, and the future rights of EU citizens – then negotiations on a crucial post-Brexit trade deal can’t get off the ground.

There is some flexibility in the October deadline for “sufficient progress” to have been made on Brussels’ three priorities. That’s when EU leaders will gather for a summit to decide whether to sign off on letting trade talks get under way, but the decision could be pushed back until December if more time is needed to hammer out a deal.

In reality, though, it’s the UK’s clock that’s running down: the longer a breakthrough takes, the less time there is to discuss what its future economic relationship with the EU will be. That’s why, ahead of the next round of talks, we are seeing new signs of compromise from the government.

Until now, UK officials have refused to put a figure on how much Brexit could cost. Government sources had previously threatened to play chicken by not publishing a position paper on finance, and holding off on naming a figure until the very last moment.

Now sources have been quoted putting amount the UK would be willing to pay at £36 billion – roughly equivalent to four years of the UK’s net contributions to the EU budget.

Given that would cover the current EU budget round and take us to the end of a likely transition period (of which more shortly), it sounds about right – and it’s less than half of Brussels’ top demand.

Compromise is essential if the UK is to secure a negotiated exit from the EU, rather than crash out of it without one. Like a trip to the seaside, however, it also gives everyone a chance to complain.

That much was confirmed at the start of the summer, when another important compromise became the subject of cabinet briefing wars.

Pragmatists in government, led by the Chancellor Philip Hammond, want UK businesses to have as long a post-Brexit bedding-in period as possible, with a transition lasting as long as three years after March 2019. During this period, Mr Hammond’s camp is willing to see the European court continue to have some jurisdiction in the UK, and also believes there should be leeway on free movement.

Brexiteer true-believers like the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox want none of it – and there are many more like him on the Tory back benches.

Conservative MPs interrupted their holidays at the weekend to condemn suggestions that the UK could pay tens of billions of pounds to the EU after leaving. Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that “legally we owe nothing”, forgetting that as the EU’s second biggest net financial contributor, money is the UK’s best leverage in talks. And John Baron has demanded a cliff-edge exit without a transition, saying there “must be no loitering in the departure lounge”.

Their complaints are a foretaste of the parliamentary discipline nightmare that Mrs May faces when she returns from holidays to push the Repeal Bill through parliament with cigarette-paper majority.

But unhappy Tory backbenchers are also the symptom of a deeper problem: the extent to which ordinary Brexit voters will feel betrayed by a deal that saves the UK economy, but sells them short on the promises made by the Leave campaign.

The reason the government has been so reluctant to put a figure on the UK’s Brexit bill is because it knows it will struggle to sell it to a public that was told leaving the EU would mean £350million per week more for public services. Likewise, taking back control will mean little to voters unless it results in a drop in net migration.

Already, Nigel Farage is gearing up for yet another return to politics in case of a “betrayal”, but with the collapse of Ukip, the concern must be whether the political vehicle for post-Brexit anger will be even more reactionary.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that any deal will naturally disappoint Remainers. The Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable was pilloried this week for suggesting a generation had been “comprehensively shafted” by their grandparents by the EU referendum.

Perhaps Mr Cable – a pensioner who presided over a trebling of university tuition fees in England – was the wrong messenger, but it is hard to argue with the message. After all, Brexit voters have been quite happy to admit it, with 39 per cent telling pollster YouGov that they would be willing to see a (younger) relative lose their job and suffer economically if it meant basking in the sovereignty of Brexit.

Mr Cable will keep on reminding young voters of their grandparents’ betrayal in the hope that young Remainers start to pay attention to how another pensioner, Jeremy Corbyn, has responded to Brexit.

Labour’s opponents have so far failed to land a blow on Mr Corbyn over his party’s muddled and half-hearted opposition to leaving the EU. That may be why we’re now hearing so much about Venezuela.

Even if Mr Corbyn’s young supporters keep the faith with Labour now, there still may come a point where he has to reconsider his stance on Brexit. Both leaders may regret getting on the plane home.