News analysis

British PM Theresa May seeks to quell government discord over Brexit

Consensus unlikely because ministers are at odds with civil servants and one another

British Prime Minister Theresa May has summoned her ministers for a special Cabinet meeting today aimed at drawing up Britain's strategy for withdrawal from the European Union (EU).

While Mrs May made the unusual decision to hold the meeting at her countryside retreat outside London in an effort to encourage a more thoughtful debate, no consensus is likely to emerge on how Britain should negotiate its divorce from the EU. For British government ministers remain locked in disputes with their own civil servants and with one another about what the so-called Brexit negotiations should seek to achieve, and who should conduct them.

Mrs May, who came to power in July in the wake of the British referendum which decided on the country's separation from the EU, remains vague about her European strategy. Apart from vowing to respect the views of the electorate by promising that "Brexit means Brexit", "she's been clear it's not a good negotiating strategy to give a running commentary on your thinking as you do it", the government's official spokesman told the media.

But her Conservative Party backbenchers are getting restless. "The Prime Minister is going to have to say what she means by 'Brexit means Brexit'," said Mr Andrew Bridgen, one of her legislators.

One reason for the MPs' growing anxiety is the suspicion that Britain's top civil servants, most of whom are pro-EU, are dragging their feet in implementing the huge bureaucratic changes dictated by the EU separation talks.

One reason for the MPs' growing anxiety is the suspicion that Britain's top civil servants, most of whom are pro-EU, are dragging their feet in implementing the huge bureaucratic changes dictated by the EU separation talks.

An entire government department on Britain's European exit - nicknamed Department X - is being created from scratch, and hundreds of additional experts are needed to handle trade negotiations, a task which until now was handled by the EU. But most of the diplomats in Britain's Foreign Office - who have the necessary skills - are in no rush to volunteer for newly created Brexit positions which, by definition, will be temporary jobs.

And lawmakers' confidence in bureaucrats was not helped by remarks from Mr Gus O'Donnell, the recently retired head of Britain's Civil Service, who suggested that the process of EU withdrawal could take "years and years and years" and that the result may yet be a Britain "loosely aligned" to the EU.

Anti-EU MPs are incensed. Mr Steve Baker, another of Mrs May's backbenchers, has called on her to "summarily dismiss" civil servants who may conspire to tame the government's Brexit intentions.

During the Cabinet session today, Mrs May will ask her ministers to exercise a tighter grip on their officials. But she will also have to order Cabinet ministers to stop fighting one another, for one of the key reasons civil servants dither is that their political masters disagree on what they should do.

Mr David Davis, a veteran Conservative politician, has been put in charge of the Brexit talks, but Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is determined to have a say as well. And then there is Mr Liam Fox, a former defence secretary now in charge of foreign trade, who plans to go around the world enticing countries to sign trade deals without a clear idea of how this connects to Britain's wider diplomatic effort.

Mrs May's next task will be to decide the timing of the start of the talks and on what she wants to achieve.

It is becoming clear to officials in London that they cannot delay the start of the talks much beyond the end of this year; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the British count on a great deal to smooth their way out of the EU, is not prepared to wait much longer.

However, the biggest question facing the British government is what it should aim to get in the EU negotiations. Mrs May's opening gambit was to suggest that Britain would wish to remain part of the EU's single market, but also apply restrictions on the rights of EU citizens to come and work in Britain. Yet that has been ruled out by all other EU governments, which insist Britain cannot enjoy the benefits of a single market without accepting the obligation of the free movement of labour.

Given this choice, many of Mrs May's Cabinet ministers want to pull Britain out of the EU single market altogether; for them, the re-imposition of border controls and restrictions on European immigration is the key objective. But Finance Minister Philip Hammond, who fears that any exit from the EU single market will hit London's status as the continent's top financial market and major revenue-earner, is opposing such a radical step. Mediating between these two positions will not be an easy task for Mrs May.

And she would be well advised to pay heed to a recent statement from Mr Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's Vice-Chancellor, who warned that Britain must be "made to pay" for Brexit, if only in order to discourage others from following the British model.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'PM May seeks to quell govt discord over Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe