finance

The quiet talks to break Brexit stalemate


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Westminster is quiet. Perhaps too quiet, given that Brexit remains deadlocked and there is scant prospect of anything that could break the stalemate. While Theresa May and most MPs are taking a mini holiday, talks between the government and the opposition Labour party are continuing. Just as they have been for weeks.

So what is going on? Is any progress being made? Who knows. Downing Street has been sketchy on the specifics of what is being discussed, especially whether a permanent customs union or a second referendum are on the negotiating table. The prime minister’s spokesperson said this morning that conversations about conversations were taking place. These seem likely to happen this week, but there is no deadline for any decisions to be made.

We do know that several working groups have been set up to nail down some specifics. Business secretary Greg Clark will work with his Labour counterpart Rebecca Long-Bailey to look at services, consumer and workers’ rights. Environment secretary Michael Gove and his shadow Sue Hayman are examining environmental protections. Brexit secretary Steve Barclay is meeting Sir Keir Starmer to talk security.

But again, there is no fixed timeline for when these groups will meet. No schedule for producing Tory-Labour plans. And no schedule for either side deciding if the talks are going nowhere and that both sides should give up and revert to their partisan bunkers.

Suspicions are rampant that these talks are not actually going to produce a deal. Instead they are about providing political cover for both sides. Mrs May hopes that the threat of a softer Brexit — combined possibly with another referendum — will bring her recalcitrant colleagues in line. When parliament returns from recess next week and the Labour talks are over, Tory MPs are expecting one last run at the prime minister’s deal before she hands the process over to the Commons.

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Mr Corbyn meanwhile is content to stall the whole process, helpfully avoiding making a decision on the referendum. Instead the opposition leader hopes that the government will collapse and a general election is around the corner. The optimum outcome for Mr Corbyn is for a Brexit deal to be passed, he is a long-term Eurosceptic after all, without sullying his hands in the process. Then the party can blame the Tories for a bad Brexit, as a Labour Brexit would have been much better for the country.

Yet as pro-Remain MPs point out, this brings a huge risk for Labour. Were Mr Corbyn to agree to a softer Brexit with the Tories, thousands of pro-EU Labour activists would never forgive him or the party. But that is a risk he appears willing to take. Mr Corbyn has ducked every opportunity to back another plebiscite. He simply wants the issue to go away.

For now, it is in the interests of both parties to run down the clock. That is the problem with the extension agreed in Brussels last week: it is too near for a substantial rethink on Brexit and too far away to prompt any action. The impending local and European Parliament elections in the UK might break the stalemate. Until then, the talks will stumble on without much progress. Don’t expect any white smoke in the near future.

Further reading

The Good Friday Agreement is under threat — but it’s key to resolving Brexit (Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, Guardian)

How the City of London’s Brexit lobbying barrage failed (Cat Rutter Pooley and Patrick Jenkins, FT)

Read More   Boeing opens first 737 plant in China amid U.S.-Sino trade war

Why I’m standing for the Brexit Party (John Longworth, Telegraph)

Hard numbers

Brexit and productivity Britain is the only large advanced economy likely to see a decline in productivity growth this year, according to new research, a development the Bank of England governor has blamed on Brexit.



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