The outlook for the Brexit negotiations, which seemed to improve after Theresa May’s speech in Florence, is again clouding over. On both sides the attitudes of influential politicians are hardening. Two episodes on Tuesday illustrate the point.
In Manchester Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, gave a crowd-pleasing speech at the ruling Conservative party’s annual conference. It underlined his dual status as the leading symbol of disunity over Brexit in Mrs May’s government and a potential claimant to her prime ministerial crown.
Mr Johnson likes to make implicit comparisons of himself with Winston Churchill, a revered statesman. But it may not be long before we discover that Mr Johnson’s closest historical ancestor is Henry Bolingbroke, who overthrew Richard II and made himself king.
Mr Johnson’s speech coincided with the European Parliament’s approval of a resolution that criticised the UK’s lack of concrete proposals in the Brexit talks. It was passed by the thumping majority of 557 votes to 92 with 29 abstentions.
Before the vote Manfred Weber, a German MEP who leads the centre-right European People’s party, the legislature’s largest group, urged Mrs May to sack Mr Johnson. It is rare, to put it mildly, for a serious European politician to demand the head of another European country’s foreign minister.
It cannot be ruled out that a clash, ominous in its implications for the Brexit talks, is looming. EU politicians, never favourably inclined to Mr Johnson in the first place, are losing their last shred of patience with him just as his popularity with the Conservative party’s rank and file is on the rise again.
The Europeans are frustrated with the lack of progress in the Brexit talks on the UK’s financial “divorce settlement”, citizens’ rights and — a delicate issue too often overlooked — the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland. Tuesday’s parliamentary resolution was especially controversial on Irish matters.
Northern Ireland unionists interpreted the resolution’s language as the first hard evidence that European policymakers intend to apply pressure to keep the area north of the border in the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit. In the unionist view, this might lead to internal barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK — an intolerable situation.
Mrs May and her government would be wise to take note of the rising discontent with the UK’s Brexit behaviour in the EU legislature. In British politics there has long been a temptation to scorn the parliament as a corruption-riddled chamber stuffed with political has-beens and never-will-bes. This was always short-sighted and is particularly so in the context of the Brexit negotiations.
Firstly, no deal on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU can take effect without the approval of the European Parliament. Secondly, the pan-European political parties represented in the legislature play a vital role in shaping and reflecting the policies adopted by EU national governments.
It should be a no-brainer for the EU’s Brexit negotiators to cultivate powerful figures such as Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister; Elmar Brok, the veteran German foreign policy expert; and Danuta Hübner, the Polish former EU commissioner. This trio sits on the EU legislature’s Brexit Steering Committee, which prepares parliamentary resolutions.
To his credit David Davis, the UK’s Brexit minister, has started to reach out to some EU legislators. Apparently, Mr Johnson’s political ambitions require him not to follow suit.
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Red lines breached
Conservative party tensions over Brexit resurfaced at the annual conference in Manchester, after senior ministers said a transition period could last until the end of 2021, exceeding Boris Johnson’s “red line” by nine months. The foreign secretary on Tuesday defended Brexit and urged the UK to “seize the opportunities” of life outside the EU. But ministers privately are scornful of Mr Johnson’s “showboating” at the conference, and have said a post-Brexit transition deal could extend considerably beyond his March 2021 deadline. (FT)
More red lines (and compromises)
Lindsay Richards and Anthony Heath surveyed 5,000 people on what they think about the various aspects of the EU negotiations. The results suggest there is more to see than the “two tribes” politics of Leave and Remain. (LSE Brexit Briefing)
Robot raspberry pickers
Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the commons, has tried to convince those who would “live most of their adult lives outside of the European Union” (ie young people) that they should be happy about Brexit because robots will soon be picking raspberries for them. (HuffPo)
UK service sector growth increases but confidence fades while costs rise
Firms in the UK’s important services sector reported better than expected growth in September in a closely watched survey, but warned of potential difficulties ahead as new business growth fell to its lowest level in more than a year.
The purchasing managers’ index increased from 53.2 to 53.6 — still weaker than its average over the first half of the year but better than economists had expected and comfortably above the 50 level that indicates expansion.
The solid figures for the sector, which accounts for 80 per cent of the UK economy, will come as a relief after surveys of the manufacturing and construction sectors disappointed earlier this week. Manufacturers reported slower growth and weaker confidence across the board, while construction companies reported their first contraction in more than a year.
Respondents to the services survey reported a particularly healthy labour market conditions and “resilient” consumer spending, but said business-to-business demand was more subdued, while operating expenses rose sharply. Overall new business volumes increased at their slowest pace in more than a year, and optimism about the year ahead remained close to a six-year low.
The PMI surveys are considered useful early indicators of growth, and this month’s figures point to quarterly GDP growth of 0.3 per cent, according to IHS Markit, which compiles the data.