Last week we were delighted to welcome ‘Brexit Guru’ – aka The Telegraph’s inaugural Brexit Commissioning Editor Asa Bennett – to discuss the UK’s impending divorce from the EU.
It was announced by Downing Street this week that the Prime Minister will make a speech in Florence on Friday 22 September, to “update on Brexit negotiations so far”. Although it has been billed by many in the media as an important moment in the Brexit negotiation phase, Asa was wary of suggestions that it would be a game-changing pivot in the process. Referring to Theresa May as the ‘Submarine PM’ (“she pops up every six months”), Asa painted a picture of weary Tory MPs, weathered by the snap election, who were not in the mood for any more surprises. With this in mind, Asa told us he thought it would be unlikely that the PM would be making any grand announcement in her speech, rather she will spell out the Government’s priorities for the next round of negotiations.
…Or as Asa put it; “Businesses are more important to Government than Nigel Farage”. Discussing businesses’ concerns about immigration and their workforces, Asa stressed that despite pressure from those who want a hard Brexit (both in the PM’s Government and out) the Prime Minister would always prioritise business interests over satisfying those calling for tougher immigration measures. In the same vein, as physical manifestations of a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit, Asa pointed out that May would always pick the Chancellor Philip Hammond over the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox.
As Brexit Commissioning Editor at The Telegraph, a paper known for its optimistic attitude towards Brexit, Asa is not one to use the fatalistic language we are so used to hearing elsewhere in the press. However, he did have one prophetic warning: if trade talks have not started by January things have gone seriously awry. He explained that for the purpose of negotiations, the UK will be keen for it to appear that a ‘no-deal’ option is a feasible outcome – but in reality, trade talks need to be underway by November latest. If we enter 2018 with no progress on trade it’s time for contingency plans.
According to Asa, Jeremy Corbyn is the “strongest glue for the Tory Party”. The wounds of the snap election have not yet healed for Tory MPs (will they ever?), and the prospect of a Corbyn Government means they will do anything to keep the PM on life support. Asa’s prediction? If there was another election before 2019 – Jez would be our Prime Minister. However, it is worth noting that the next round of Brexit talks occur during Labour Party conference, which could mean Labour MPs will likely face greater scrutiny on their changeable Brexit position than had been anticipated.
Earlier this month, put out by the Prime Minister’s ‘snub’ to MEPs when she rejected the offer of a public address, the European Parliament’s Chief Coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, went to great lengths to remind the PM that the Parliament has the power to veto any withdrawal agreement that the UK and Europe reach. For some this may sound like a frightening prospect, but Asa reminded us that 2019 is not only the year that we leave the EU, it is also when MEPs will be fighting for re-election. We all know that those seeking to hold their seat are unlikely to want to rock the boat, particularly a boat as big as one that will cause ripples right across the EU. Does this make the European Parliament irrelevant? Maybe not. But will they veto a withdrawal agreement? Highly unlikely.