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We know what they did this summer…

1st September 2017

Have you been enjoying a nice holiday? Have you taken a well-deserved break from the morning papers and the constant stream of twitter?  Well we’re here to help. “Silly season”, the term first coined in an 1861 Saturday Review article, and which denotes the prevalence of frivolous news stories, has not disappointed.

Here is our run down of the four key UK political stories of the summer.

1. Cabinet Rows

The beginning of summer was marked by a number of rows between Cabinet Ministers with a number of op-eds and briefings demarcating differing positions – usually on the subject of Brexit. The public nature of these rows has been variously attributed to an understaffed No 10 press team, leadership positioning, and Cabinet members who were simply enjoying new-found liberty from the alleged “iron rule” of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

The rows varied in seriousness. There were ad hominin attacks with ministers being branded “donkeys”. But there was also a two week row played out in the Sunday papers regarding the length of any transitional agreement in the Brexit talks with Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd lining up against Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. Austerity was also the subject of disagreement with Hammond warning of tax rises, Michael Gove pledging no tax rises and Justine Greening appealing for extra school funding. There have been reports that Conservative MPs have spent their summers growing increasingly unhappy about the levels of public service investment and its impact in their constituencies so expect this issue to resurface in advance of the Budget in November.

2. Brexit position papers

Mid-August saw a flurry of UK Brexit position papers produced on a daily basis. These papers, required under the terms of the negotiation, aim to set out the UK’s negotiating position and were published to coincide with the third round of Brexit negotiations which have been taking place this week. Papers were published on everything from goods, customs, data sharing and Northern Ireland to future judicial cooperation.

Although the importance of these papers is significant, their subject matter ensured that a number of them proved to be somewhat dry reads. Nonetheless, they have all provided useful further guidance on the UK’s position and most take a practical approach to a number of the challenges arising as a result of Brexit. Much of the media attention focussed on the goods and customs papers. However, any UK/EU future relationship will need some arbiter for a great deal of the areas where agreement may be struck. In this regard, the softening of the UK’s position on some form of European Court jurisdiction is perhaps the most important development in the UK position and one which significantly increases the chances of a future relationship agreement being reached.

3. Labour sets out their Brexit position

Labour have long been criticised for not having a clear position on Brexit. Many credited this lack of clarity as responsible for an element of Corbyn’s success in the General Election – if you like someone and they make an ambiguous statement you tend to ascribe your own preferences to that person. Last weekend Sir Keir Starmer set out Labour’s Brexit position in an Observer article which promised “no constructive ambiguity”. It largely repeats the aspirations highlighted in their manifesto, however, with one notable development – a call for a transitional deal during which the UK would be within the customs union and the single market.

To date, much of the language used by Labour and the Conservatives to talk about Brexit has been broad brush and relatively indistinguishable. For example, both talk about retaining the benefits of the customs union and the single market albeit with different emphases. The Government has published position papers as to how this might be achieved. Starmer’s piece says that “how [this] is ultimately achieved is secondary to the outcome.” However, Labour’s commitment to staying in the single market and customs union during a transitional agreement does provide a clear point of difference with the Conservatives who have pledged to leave both on the day we leave the EU. The debate will continue as to whether Labour’s position is merely delaying the inevitable. 

4. May staying on

May has spent much of the summer on holiday or abroad on official visits (she is presently in Japan looking to drum up business and trade opportunities), but just in time for the return of Parliament she has announced her intention to stay on as leader and her ambition to do so until the next election. Shortly after the General Election she reportedly promised the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs that “I’ve got you into this, I’ll get you out of it”. May appears committed to attempting to fulfil this promise as leader, though as cynics will point out she also promised that there would be no General Election until 2020. For now she has made her position clear, but as Conference season approaches we could see the debate about the leadership of the Conservative Party rear its head again. 

Grayling Team

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