PLMR’s Brexit Unit Head, Joe Mitton, is a former diplomat and adviser to Boris Johnson. He considers the political effects of today’s announcements
It would be a mistake to consider today’s triggering of Article 50 as a mere formality, simply confirming what we have known for nine months. On the contrary, the formal beginning of the process of exiting the EU changes British politics in some important ways, most of which favour Prime Minister May’s political agenda.
First, today’s act makes Brexit a certainty. Interventions by grandees across the political spectrum, from Blair to Heseltine, calling for a rethink or second referendum will now seem passé. The formal exit process has started, which means what happens next is no longer solely up the UK government – The European Commission and its Member States are now formally involved and have a stake in an orderly exit, and have little interest in a chaotic reversal, even if UK politics were to change dramatically.
This strengthens Ms May’s voice as that of the future – people will listen when she speaks about the kind of country we will live in after the exit. There is limited political appeal in ruminating on decisions past, and Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats have a challenge in this regard: how to provide a political voice for Europhiles without just gazing at the Referendum’s spilt milk. The politics of regret is very limited – voters instead want to hear what the future will look like. Labour’s challenge will be to present a credible alternative vision of the post-Brexit nation.
Second, the Prime Minister has a window of opportunity to shape the agenda. The domestic opposition is not formidable, and Europe is yet to form a coherent response – views on the Continent range from pragmatism in Berlin to anger in Brussels and Paris (at least, until the new President takes office), and even sympathy or admiration among dissatisfied voters in several countries. Given that the UK is in a weaker negotiating position than the Commission, Ms May’s government has performed very well in positioning itself as the conciliatory, mature partner – speaking of a global, outward-focussed free trading nation and a constructive partner for Europe. Whether this eventuates or not, capturing this political ground positions one’s opponents as spoilers. Whether this will affect the positions taken across the Channel remains to be seen.
Today has strengthened the Prime Minister, but only for so long. The public may tire of endless debate on the finer points of trade negotiations, and Ms May needs to demonstrate ongoing competence not only in “making a success of Brexit”, but also on all the other issues that voters judge their government – education, healthcare and the economy. The country’s relatively strong economic performance in the months since the Referendum has surprised many. While optimistic that will continue, the government cannot ignore the risk that investment and spending slows as leaving the EU and the Single Market becomes a reality.