Britain and its EU partners began the latest round of formal negotiations over Brexit on Monday. As the two sides sat around the table in Brussels, a lot of sound and fury could be heard about the terms on which Britain will leave the EU. The tension, however, was not between David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s top negotiator. Instead, it was inside the British government.
Four months after setting in motion the process of divorce, Theresa May’s cabinet is still nowhere near agreeing its negotiating position. On one side is Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who is arguing for a slow transition after March 2019 to give stability to businesses trading with Europe. On the other is Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, who along with others, is calling for a more radical break.
Worse, this conflict over Brexit plays into an increasingly noxious power struggle in the party. Mrs May has been chronically weakened by last month’s election. Some of the sniping and leaks appear to reflect the unseemly jostling over who is to replace her in the future.
Given how little time there is now for Britain to complete negotiations with the EU, this is inauspicious to say the least. As Mr Barnier is at pains to remind his counterparts, the clock is ticking. Britain has 20 months in which to determine the terms for future relations with the EU. If cabinet members are unable to agree among themselves, it is reasonable to ask whether they can reach an agreement with the EU that they can sell to parliament in the time available.
There is no advantage for Britain in a radical rupture. Mr Hammond is thus right to push for a reasonable transition deal that prioritises British businesses and jobs. Ordinarily, such an agenda for Brexit should not mark a departure from Conservative party norms. It represents the most informed and realistic position to safeguard Britain’s future prosperity. If it is controversial now, it is because those…