Pressure mounts on "silent" May ahead of Brexit negotiations

A plunging currency, rising inflation, reports of dissent in her cabinet, legal challenges to Brexit and rising racism and xenophobia are just a few of the problems that Prime Minister Theresa May might be happy to leave behind when she attends an EU summit in Brussels this week.

Scotland is taking its first steps towards a second independence referendum and politicians in Northern Ireland and Ireland are pressing for reassurances about the potential impact of Brexit on the territory's hard-won peace agreement.

Pressure is also mounting from Brexiteers for May's Conservative government to move as quickly as possible with negotiations on leaving the EU and "take control" of Britain's borders. 

But perhaps the biggest complaint among British politicians on all sides is May's relative silence on her Brexit negotiating position.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg this week accused her of leading "a rudderless government whose defining characteristic seems to be its determination to dodge difficult questions."

In Wednesday's final prime minister's questions before May headed to Brussels, veteran Conservative lawmaker and former chancellor Ken Clarke accused May of "expressing some reluctance to present even broad plans" on Brexit negotiations.

During her silence, May's cabinet was "briefing the newspapers copiously on every proposal being put forward... and launching political attacks on their cabinet colleagues who seem to disagree with them," said Clarke, asking May if she planned to "take firm action to stop this process."

Clarke, who campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, was apparently referring partly to mounting speculation that Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has opposed May's plans to restrict EU migration.

Speaking at a treasury committee later Wednesday, Hammond, a Remainer before the referendum, said the government was "keeping as many options open as possible" and that giving away its positions could undermine its negotiations "in a spectacular way."

"Those that are undermining that effort are those seeking to close down options," he said, a remark that some analysts speculated was aimed at eurosceptic cabinet colleagues pushing for Britain to gain wide control of EU migration.

Yet Hammond did give clues, saying he did not advocate retaining unrestricted free movement of EU citizens into Britain but had suggested allowing financial services companies to continue employing skilled staff from other EU nations.

He said the government also planned to consider "an appropriate way of addressing the needs of the agricultural sector," which is lobbying to be able to continue employing EU migrants if Britain imposes restrictions.

The major sticking point to such ideas becoming part of a Brexit deal, however, is the opposition from many of the other 27 EU governments to giving Britain any leeway to restrict freedom of movement while it retains access to the EU single market.

Ahead of the Brussels summit, European Council President Donald Tusk warned in stark terms that Britain would not be able to retain access to the EU's single market if it insists on curbing access to Britain's labour market.

From the Britain's perspective, Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House think-tank, says a Norway-style agreement for Britain to join the European Economic Area and accept unrestricted freedom of movement would not, in any case, "appear to meet the popular or political mandate of the referendum result."

May and many in her cabinet have "interpreted the referendum result as a popular mandate for curbing EU migration and restoring full parliamentary control over legislation," said Sofia Vasilopoulou, a political scientist at the University of York.

That means May must negotiate a Brexit agreement that can be presented as Britain "taking back control" of its borders, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit minister David Davis and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox urged relentlessly during their highly divisive Leave campaigning ahead of the referendum in June.

Johnson, Davis and Fox will lead the Brexit negotiations for May.

Vasilopoulou, writing last week for the website of The UK in a Changing Europe, believes the key policy challenge for her government now "relates to how Brexit can be achieved with a view to safeguarding the UK's interests while at the same time uniting British people and avoiding further polarization."

Last update: Wed, 19/10/2016 - 23:11
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