William Wallace: Theresa May’s reshuffle and her great Brexit balancing act

Can Theresa May paper over the cracks in her Government? William Wallace fears not.
Can Theresa May paper over the cracks in her Government? William Wallace fears not.
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LIKE it or not, Brexit will continue to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future.

The care the Prime Minister takes to balance her Cabinet between Brexiteers and Remainers show both how delicate an issue this is within the Conservative Party, and how bitterly divided the Government is despite the latest reshuffle.

Both Houses of Parliament will be grappling with a succession of Bills on leaving the EU throughout this year, leaving little time for domestic reform. And time is short; the Prime Minister has promised that we will leave the EU 15 months from now.

Theresa May has tried to contain the splits within her party by delaying decisions on how we leave. On December 19, some 18 months after the EU referendum, the Cabinet at last held its first full discussion on what sort of relationship the UK would prefer to have with our closest neighbours and largest trade partners after we leave the EU. It is reported that they did not go far into details – but they cannot duck the all-important details much longer.

Leave fought the referendum, it is now clear, without any agreed strategy about future relations with the EU if it won – just as Donald Trump won the US presidency without plans on how he would govern afterwards. Some Brexiteer ministers accept that close relations with our neighbours will remain a strong national interest; others think we should break away as far as possible. Theresa May understands that such a hard break would be a disaster both for Britain’s economy and for our security. She has just declared that the UK wants ‘the most comprehensive trade deal ever’ with the EU; but she also insists that we must leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, outside which a comprehensive deal will not be possible.

There’s a strong element of nostalgia, even fantasy, in recent developments. Leavers have celebrated the restoration of the old blue UK passport, without mentioning that British citizens may be standing in long queues at European borders as they clutch them. Liam Fox still hopes that Commonwealth countries will offer Britain easy trade concessions in gratitude for past enlightened empire, even though India and others have made it clear that they will drive a hard bargain. The campaign to build a new Royal Yacht is still running in right-wing media, as a symbol of Britain’s return to a global role.

Meanwhile, officials in Whitehall are frustrated by the lack of ministerial leadership. Staff turnover in David Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU is four times higher than elsewhere. Liam Fox has flown the equivalent of eight times round the world in the past year, without winning promises on future trade concessions. Boris Johnson has offended most EU foreign ministers without winning new friends elsewhere.

A government which had a clear idea of what its alternative to EU membership should be, and which put its best ministers in charge of the negotiations, might by now have agreed the overall shape of our future relationship. Indecision and incompetence have instead dismayed business leaders, slowed economic growth, and irritated the governments with whom we wish to negotiate. And the Government’s domestic agenda is also drifting. The NHS is facing another crisis, rather than the extra funding that the Leave campaign promised would flow in. The gap between rich and poor, which was narrowing five years ago, is widening again; disadvantaged communities, which voted strongly for Brexit, are losing out further. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’, much trumpeted by David Cameron and George Osborne, is going nowhere.

The referendum offered a simple and seductive choice. But unpicking the international framework which shaped our external relations for forty years is complicated. Ministers have tolerated contradictions and compromises, to avoid upsetting their own right-wing and supporters in the media.

Last month’s ‘agreement’ on the Irish border was a classic illustration: it’s simply not possible to maintain ‘frictionless’ trade across the Irish Sea and at the same time to leave the Customs Union and Single Market. Arguments are already rumbling within the Government over divergent interpretations of what’s been agreed, with the threat of a revival of cross-border crime and violence in the background. On this, and on many other complex but vital issues, there’s still a long way to go before any satisfactory outcome can be reached.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer and former minister.