Public rifts over Brexit show split in government, departure from convention

31 January 2017 9:54am
Theresa May

21st September 2016. By Matthew Holehouse

British diplomats are quietly urging European business leaders to ignore the statements of senior UK government ministers over Brexit, MLex has learned.

Only statements issued by the cabinet committee on Brexit, chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May herself, reflect UK policy, businesses have been told.

Companies with ties to the UK are clamoring for certainty over the country’s plans once it gives up EU membership. But they have found only radio silence from May’s office, and a cacophony of signals from her ministers.

Diplomats are reassuring foreign investors that ministers airing divergent views on Brexit through British newspapers is a normal part of the policymaking process.

But these backdoor attempts to appease investors underscore the depth of the split among May’s most senior officials, and illustrate how conventions on government conduct have eroded since the Brexit vote.

Erosion of code of conduct

British governments prize unity and discipline. Under May, by contrast, divisions have emerged quickly and are likely to intensify when Brexit negotiations begin.

Under the British system of government, ministers should be able to express their views about policy candidly behind closed doors. But in public, ministers must put up a “united front” and support the government’s official policy line.

This is particularly the case when a minister speaks from the dispatch box in the House of Commons, the lower elected chamber of the UK Parliament.

Also, correspondence between ministers about policy must not be leaked. Ministers who feel they can’t stick to the government line are expected to resign, according to the convention.

Since May took office, there have already been several instances when the golden rules were tested.

David Davis, the new Brexit secretary, was slapped down by May’s office, after telling lawmakers that it was “improbable” that the UK would remain in the single market, given the desire to restrict free movement of labor.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, issued a statement advising businesses that the UK could exit the EU without a trade arrangement, forcing them to operate on World Trade Organization terms — a scenario that some Brexit advocates regard as attractive but could be unsustainable for many businesses.

His department later said the statement was issued in error.

Two confidential documents prepared by Fox’s officials have also appeared in UK newspapers.

A structural issue

The way May structured the government departments negotiating an EU exit deal has also contributed to an increase in dissenting voices.

Setting up the Department for Exiting the European Union was a significant symbol of May’s intent to quit the bloc. But the department is small in size, taking in a handful of experts from each area of government. The bulk of the policymaking is conducted by teams in other departments, under the supervision of other Secretaries of State.

The Home Office is taking the lead in a future migration policy, while the Treasury will run the negotiations over financial services.

Clashes may be inevitable. In the negotiations in Brussels, the deal banks can get will be directly tied to the strictness of the migration controls Britain seeks on EU workers. Negotiators will have to choose which policies to defend, and which to barter away.

Fragile mandate

Diplomats are stressing that negotiations will ultimately be May’s prerogative, with the help of a tight circle of senior advisors.

But May’s clout to keep ministers in line could be weakened because she didn’t run and win a general election. The power to hire and fire ministers is often earned by winning a mandate after a general election or internal party vote. May was appointed as Conservative Party leader by default after her rivals dropped out the race.

The three Brexit figureheads she appointed to senior posts — Fox, Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — owe their jobs largely to the Leave vote that they campaigned for. With 17.4 million people voting to quit the bloc, they can cite a bigger mandate to speak their minds than May can.

Brexit Special Report