Cabinet fight over Brexit transition

Ministers have clashed this week over the issue of free movement after Britain leaves the European Union. Matthew Partridge reports.


Liam Fox: "keeping faith" with the referendum
(Image credit: 2017 Getty Images)

"Downing Street has sought to rein in Chancellor Philip Hammond in an apparent attempt to prevent Brexit divisions descending into a cabinet civil war," says Joe Watts in The Independent. Hammond had suggested that free movement "in all but name" would carry on for a three-year period after Brexit. By contrast, Trade Secretary Liam Fox stated that unregulated free movement post-Brexit would "not keep faith" with the referendum result. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman agreed that it "would be wrong to suggest freedom of movement would continue unchanged".

It's not surprising that "Remainers are keen on a transition period", notes the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts "they hope its delays will prove permanent". Yet such suggestions are not only "deaf to public opinion", but are also clearly "part of a choreographed plan by Remainers" to sideline the likes of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis. Meanwhile, the EU negotiators must love it any time a minister "spouts forth about Brexit, it makes it harder for David Davis to insist his red lines' are indeed red".

Hammond is right, counters William Hague in The Daily Telegraph. "If there is no clarity on where businesses will stand in March 2019 when we officially leave the EU, many more will be announcing that they need to move some of their operations, or offices or new investments elsewhere." A two-year deadline to agree both a divorce and a trade deal also means that Brussels will be "emboldened to maintain a hard line over the coming weeks". Viewed in this context, "the attractions of the chancellor's plan, which sounds similar to joining the European Economic Area as a transition, are immense".

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Hardliners may consider an EEA-style deal as Brexit in name only, says David Allen Green in the Financial Times. But some sort of transitional deal is inevitable there is no chance of getting everything that needs to be done finished by 29 March 2019. If the squabbling continues, "there is no real prospect of much being done at all". And both sides need to realise that these arrangements are "not in the gift of the UK government" they will be "whatever the EU wishes to agree" with us.

The prime minister may not want to compromise on freedom of movement, but she has to "take responsibility for Britain's woeful lack of preparedness" for these vital negotiations, argues Adam Boulton in The Times. She triggered Article 50 and set the clock counting down, without "even having held talks about the talks with the other side". It looks as though she will have to "swallow her words and give the conciliatory speeches she should have given a year ago".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri