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May's ‘Flexi-Brexit’ - the devil is still in the lack of detail

January 19, 2017 3:55 PM
By Alan Bullion in Agra Europe

So now we know a little bit more about Britain's future and Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy. But it is a bit like unpeeling a Russian doll only to find yet another layer underneath.

By tantalising the British and EU politicians and public with some revealing details, inevitably there are more questions than answers, and it still seems like an Alice in Wonderland style 'Flexi-Brexit' - whatever I say today Brexit is, that is what it is.

In fact, May's latest pronouncements differ little from what she said in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, when she told us that the UK government would neither opt for a Norwegian- or Switzerland-style solution.

But by focusing on a 'free trade' scenario, without the concomitant freedom of movement of farm labour from the rest of the EU, however May throws up a series of further conundrums.

So far, environment secretary Andrea Leadsom has hinted that some sort of replacement to the SAWS scheme might come into the post-Brexit scenario, combined with more domestic apprenticeships and robotic replacements for horticultural pickers.

The direction of travel on early trade talks with key agricultural producers such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand will most probably alarm the NFU and other farm trade associations. Cheaper imports of beef and lamb may well be on the agenda table, while the US talks may be problematic on sticking points such as genetically modified (GM) crops, chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef.

But May's speech should help placate the crop protection industry, with its references to science and technological-based solutions, as they see this as a potential path to UK legislation for active ingredients such as neonics based upon a less emotive and more evidence based platform.

The main challenge going forward will be similar to the 1980s, where the last UK Conservative female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, built up a series of 'enemies within', such as Labour councils, coal miners, steel workers, and trade unions.

Today's 'enemies within' are the awkward squad - the 'fourth estate' (aka 'Remain'-leaning media who keep on hassling for further details); those 48% who voted for Remain and may not be reconciled to May's healing balm; and the devolved assemblies - particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland, the latter now facing fresh elections on March 2.

The 'enemies without' are the EU 27 and their devolved assemblies, who will need to approve any future deals on the table. This is a risky strategy to adopt and in the end did for Thatcher as her initial overwhelming popularity waned, terminally undermined by her own MPs.

But for now, Theresa May has essentially based her model on the strict majoritarian principle of 'winner takes all', which has traditionally dominated the UK electoral system.

What started out as largely a fringe movement in the Conservative Party has now become the political mainstream, driven by the rising fear of UKIP, and the Tory 'enemy within' MPs who stirred the pot relentlessly over recent years, combined with a well-funded and highly persuasive newsprint campaign and now viral social media machine.

May also benefits from a weak and divided opposition from the Labour party, especially in the House of Commons. There will be challenges and hurdles ahead - in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the House of Lords, from protest marches, from more crowdfunded legal actions.

My hunch however is that she will overcome all short-term obstacles. Article 50 will be triggered on track in March, and that the UK will leave the EU in spring 2019.

However, putting the country together again now 'Pandora's Brexit Box' has been opened, and securing those putative trade deals may take much longer and the panoply of opportunities now proclaimed prove more elusive.