Front Bench: The Brexit transition brings the brief Tory peace to an end

Daniel Capurro
Jacob Rees-Mogg - AFP

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Front Bench

Well, the peace didn’t last long. The corks had barely left the bottles as David Davis and Co celebrated agreeing a transition deal with the EU before the rebels were decrying it over fishing rights. Downing Street will still be relatively happy with the deal. The March deadline for reaching an agreement came from the UK government, which is acutely aware that businesses’ have their own deadlines for activating Brexit contingency plans which are fast approaching.

Concessions and concessions

With that in mind, the UK was always going to make as many concessions as were necessary to get a transition deal over the line. As Front Bench never tires of pointing out, transition was only ever meant to be a technical and non-political measure. That it caused so much havoc in the Tory party last month was more than a little bizarre. This time around, lessons seem to have been learnt and the necessary concessions made to keep the Tory party on side.

Indeed, Downing Street can chalk up one significant victory with the UK able to negotiate and sign free trade deals during the transition. Of course the chances of the UK getting a deal all the way to the point of signing in just 21 months (the length of the transition) appear slim, but this is still a divergence from the EU’s usual strict legalism.

More importantly, domestically at least, it should allay the fears of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his hardline Brexiteers, who warned that Britain risked becoming a “joke nation” if it could not sign trade deals during the transition. Yet, as Theresa May has learnt again and again, a happy Brussels rarely means happy backbenchers.

Thanks for all the fish

Which brings us to fish. The deal agreed yesterday leaves the UK in the EU’s fishing set-up until the end of 2020. This has been branded an “abject, disgusting betrayal” by a spokesman for Fishing for Leave. And so the River Thames is now set to witness its second act of fishing based defiance in as many years, with Rees-Mogg planning to board a fishing boat on the Thames and throw a box of haddock skate and bass into the river near Parliament in protest.

What makes this more interesting than the usual hardline Brexiteer protests is that Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and several Tory MPs in Scotland are also joining the criticism.

The party won several seats in northeast Scotland while campaigning on the basis of backing the fishing industry during Brexit. And while this may only be the transition, it raises fears that fishing rights will be bargained away to gain concessions for financial services or other large sectors of the UK economy.

Still no Irish solution

While fishing may grab the headlines today, the real worry at the heart of the transition deal is that it is built on fudge. It’s not a legally binding deal, but instead a political one.

And, constructed as it is on the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, it leaves much to the final Brexit agreement. Most obvious of which is the Irish border.

This is welcome in many ways. The EU has in effect agreed to leave the Irish border question to the final deal, thus allowing transition agreement to happen now. In a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, yesterday, the PM wrote that she still believed the final deal will provide “for such a deep trading relationship between the UK and the EU that specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland are not required.”

Finding a way of doing just that, while sticking to the UK’s redlines, is what everyone has been bickering over all along.

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