By Charlotte Lang
Today more than ever, Theresa May must be conscious that divisions in her party over Europe have claimed the political careers of three predecessor Conservative prime ministers.
One might therefore expect Brexit to be an existential threat to her, but so far it has not dented her popularity.
Now that Sir Tim Barrow, head of the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU, has delivered the prime minister’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, the PM will also be mindful of the political imperative to win the confidence and support of the British public, whether they were previously ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’.
In the letter, the prime minister notes the return of powers both to Westminster and the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The importance of the border with the Republic of Ireland is itself one of the seven principles she outlines for the negotiations.
Her letter states that the government wishes to ensure “the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland”, and is clear that “nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland”.
The seven principles set out in today’s letter to the European Commission are:
- We should engage with one another constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation.
- We should always put our citizens first.
- We should work towards securing a comprehensive agreement.
- We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible.
- In particular, we must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland, and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
- We should begin technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but we should prioritise the biggest challenges.
- We should continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values.
The letter both acknowledges the scale of the challenge the negotiations present, and seeks to convey the government’s optimism that negotiations can be successful for both parties.
On the Today Programme this morning, the chancellor of the exchequer spoke with a calm and measured tone – in contrast with some of the excitement displayed by Brexiteers in his own party yesterday.
He noted his belief that the UK would need to make concessions to the European Union in order to secure the best possible deal with the bloc.
Just as “Brexit means Brexit” was a mantra necessary to convince other EU Member States the UK really was going to see through this process, May now needs to carefully manage expectations at home in order to ensure that her government is credited for future progress in the negotiations.
Many in the Conservative Party and beyond have been campaigning for this day for years, and even decades. May and her colleagues are acutely aware that the decisions reached during the negotiation will have long and far-reaching implications for the UK.
There is a risk that the successes of the negotiations could be overshadowed by any perception of the government having made erroneous concessions. The PM knows only too well this would not play well with her backbenchers, nor at the ballot box in 2020.
Addressing MPs in the House of Commons this afternoon, the prime minister reiterated her “fierce determination to get a good deal for every single person in UK”.
Her letter acknowledges that “it will be a challenge to reach such a comprehensive agreement within the two-year period”, but that the “close regulatory alignment” already in place should make it possible.
The future of that alignment will of course be tested from now, with the government publishing a White Paper tomorrow, beginning the process of formulating the Great Repeal Bill. This policy document is likely to be both complex and will solicit strong views and representations from all business sectors and interest groups seeking to influence it.
The Great Repeal Bill will begin a protracted process of review and amendment which will have widespread legislative consequences for every business and individual in the United Kingdom.
Navigating this complex process with such a small majority (17) will be a challenge – one that could ultimately result in an early general election.
Long, complicated, and potentially very divisive, the real business of Brexit has now begun.