Brexit weekly briefing: UK rift widens as May names article 50 day

Jon Henley and Jessica Elgot
Theresa May has embarked on a national tour aimed at reassuring voters that she will ‘deliver a deal that works’ for everyone. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Welcome to the Guardian’s weekly Brexit briefing, a summary of developments as Britain heads more or less steadily towards the EU door marked “exit”. If you’d like to receive it as a weekly early morning email, please sign up here.

And this: producing the Guardian’s independent, in-depth journalism takes a lot of time and money. We do it because we believe our perspective matters – and it may well be your perspective too. If you value our Brexit coverage, become a Guardian Supporter and help make our future more secure. Thank you.

The big picture

This is it, then: we are nearly there. Nine months after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Theresa May will on 29 March invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, formally serving notice that it intends to do just that.

So as the prime minister kicks off a national tour aimed at reassuring all corners of the country that she will “deliver a deal that works” for them to ensure everyone can “make the most of the opportunities ahead”, what state is Team GB in?

The answer appears to be: not so great. The government’s unwavering insistence that Brexit must mean leaving the single market and customs union has unleashed a furious Scottish rebellion, as well as rumblings in Northern Ireland and Wales.

May’s flat refusal to countenance a second Scottish independent referendum before Britain has left the bloc prompted an angry response from SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who accused the PM of “sealing the fate” of the union:

It’s an argument for independence, really, in a nutshell, that Westminster thinks it has got the right to block the democratically elected mandate of the Scottish government and the majority in the Scottish parliament.

There are problems within the cabinet, too. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, was forced to execute a humiliating U-turn last week on controversial tax plans – a sign, commentators said, of May’s determination not to upset the (pro-Brexit) press.

Ministers – particularly the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who seems constitutionally incapable of toeing an agreed line for long – have shown an increasing tendency to sing from different Brexit hymn books.

And after cheerily repeating ad infinitum that no trade deal was better than a bad trade deal, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, admitted the government had not assessed the potential economic impact of leaving without one – hardly reassuring.

Brussels and the 27, meanwhile, look in good shape as the article 50 negotiations loom, continuing to show almost unprecedented unity on what they want from the talks – starting with an early agreement on the UK’s financial commitments.

The view from Europe

May risks public EU criticism – and a terrible start to the talks – if her article 50 notification does not explicitly indicate the UK’s willingness to settle its divorce bill and make an “orderly withdrawal” from the bloc, according to EU sources.

While the prime minister has preferred to talk about her hopes for a free trade agreement, the EU reckons Britain will have to pay up to £57bn to cover existing budget commitments – and will not discuss an FTA before that is dealt with.

Separately, the commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, will meet a delegation of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals living on the continent on 28 March, and has promised the EU would “address this issue as a top priority”.

Meanwhile, back in Westminster

On the day her spokesman confirmed the date of article 50, Theresa May was in windy Swansea to extol the benefits of a new “city deal” that will mean £1.3bn of investment in the bay area.

It might seem tangential, but the trip and the announcement underscore the importance of the union – a new deal for a Welsh city through successful collaboration between Whitehall and a devolved government.

The prime minister will make a show of visiting all four nations in the nine days before the triggering of article 50, which No 10 said would show how she was “engaging and listening to people from right across the nation”.

The Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, said she was doing nothing of the kind, telling the Guardian May had a “tin ear” on issues of devolution and warning there was a battle looming over more than just Scottish independence or the Irish border:

If they are not careful, people’s sense of disengagement with Brussels will simply attach itself to London. We need to see there is a dividend in being a devolutionist government that supports the union and we don’t see that dividend.

Relations between Westminster and Holyrood could hardly be more strained, with Nicola Sturgeon repeating demands for a second independence referendum to pave the way for the country to remain in the European single market.

After informing Donald Tusk, it was lobby journalists whom Downing Street spoke to next about the date of article 50, prompting outrage from the SNP.

Michael Russell, the Scottish parliament’s minister who sits on the Brexit joint ministerial council, complained on Twitter: “Thank you @BBCNews for letting JMC members like me know that #Article50 is to be triggered next week. @GOVUK somehow forgot to inform us.”

No 10 also categorically ruled out a rumoured snap election on 4 May.

You should also know ...

Read these

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland warns that the Brexit ultras will have their hard Brexit – even if the price (though it could still be averted) is the breakup of the United Kingdom:

What a paradoxical story we shall tell our grandchildren about Brexit. The little ones will climb on our knee and we will recall how we bravely seized our independence from hated Brussels – only to destroy our country ... Our leaders thought escaping the EU was so vital it was worth shattering the deeper, closer union that had defined our country for more than three centuries.

In the FT (paywall), Timothy Garton-Ash argues that as an embattled post-Brexit Europe nears 60, besieged on all sides, it is really not in particularly good shape. But, he says, it is not quite dead yet:

Where European policies are causing damage, we must say so and change them, but national politicians should stop blaming all the bad things on Brussels and taking all the credit for themselves. They should listen carefully to the legions of unhappy voters, then develop policies to address those concerns and convey their solutions in direct, appealing language that reaches those caught in the internet-enabled echo chambers of populism. Like every political community, the EU will only survive if enough of its people (and peoples) want it to survive. At 60, Europa is in bad shape, but there’s life in the old girl yet.

Back at the Guardian, Rafael Behr argues that May’s diplomatic blunders will cost Britain dear in Brexit talks: the prime minister has “alienated all who counsel moderation” and indulged her party’s Europhobes, in effect swallowing her own spin – to which she appears to be addicted:

May has eschewed the friendship of habitually loyal Tory moderates and basked in the cheers of career rebels. She has courted the faction that has been ratcheting her party ever deeper into Europhobic paranoia for a generation. She has made their rhetoric her own. Perhaps it is an act. Maybe a more nuanced approach to the negotiations is imminent. But the safer assumption is that May isn’t just dealing in narcotic Brexit fantasy spin. She’s hooked on the stuff.

Tweet of the week

Not a million miles from the truth?

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes