UK’s European policy – already broken? or magician’s distraction?

I finished my first post-Brexit post by noting the “exquisitely sharp dilemma” Britain’s new Prime Minister has to manage. That was before she seemingly decided to sharpen the dilemma by appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. But some of Theresa May‘s other new Cabinet appointments may give more reason for serious reflection. 


Twitter has been alive with bitter hilarity at the appointment. Boris Johnson has a reputation for, shall we say, a less than whole-hearted respect for facts and a loose and insulting way with rhetoric. It evidently precedes him into Europe. Neither the French nor German Foreign Minister has held back in expressing themselves about him.

Johnson shares responsibility for peddling inaccuracies during the campaign for the 23 June Brexit referendum. Despite his affability, charm and humour – he is, no disrespect, a genuinely funny man – nobody should expect he will get a warm welcome or an easy ride in Europe. Nor the US actually: he has  likened Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”; said his only reason for not going to some parts of New York was so as to avoid Donald Trump; and he called George W Bush “a cross-eyed warmonger”. Perhaps that is the most likeable thing about him – there’s nothing partisan or selective about his insults.

So why did Theresa May do it? Here’s a pair of senior Conservative veterans joking about Tory leadership candidates at the height of the in-fighting over the past couple of weeks, agreeing Johnson is unthinkable as Prime Minister; if so unthinkable as PM, why acceptable in one of the highest offices of state?

Magic May

There are two obvious explanations and one less obvious. First, it’s been widely suggested that May’s operating principle has been to tell the Brexiters, ‘You broke it, you own it.’ I.e., Johnson, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom and others (but not Michael Gove with whom Theresa May clashed bitterly in 2014) have been told to get on with the task of implementing Brexit. This links to the second obvious reason – internal party politics and the need to keep the anti-EU Conservatives quiet: had May not put Brexiters in charge of Brexit, future howls of anguish about Bretrayal would be predictable.

These are probably the two key components of the explanation of Boris Johnson’s unexpected and in many ways unarguably weird elevation. But I have been thinking along a different line.

Theresa May must know that Johnson will not go down well in Europe so why has she put him in charge of negotiating the exit from the EU? Oh, hang on, she hasn’t. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is David Davis – long standing anti-EU campaigner, David Cameron’s rival for the Conservative leadership back in 2005, right-wing on many issues, thoughtful about complex problems such as Syria, and ferociously dependable in support of individual liberties. The appointment of Davis meets the ‘You broke it’ criterion. And it puts the exit negotiations and implementation in the hands of a much more solid politician than Johnson.

And because of that, I wonder whether Johnson’s role is distraction. Is he the furiously waving right hand of the magician May, while her left hand deftly completes the substitution of doves for flowers?

Two thoughts on this. First, if Johnson is meant to head the foreign policy sideshow, there is nonetheless a lot of serious business he will be in charge of, starting with the Middle East, relations with Russia, China and the rest of the world – not least, perhaps, finding ways for the UK and the rest of Europe to build new working relationships. There’s a lot for his sharp tongue and difficult reputation to mess up.

David Davis

Second, David Davis’s own views are intractably anti-EU.  A recent article confirms he buys straight into the core Brexit dream that Britain can both have full access to the EU single market and yet restrict freedom of movement, a proposition the EU has categorically rejected since the Brexit vote. Indeed, Davis argues that once the EU sees that a Brexiting government is firm on both demands, it will give way. That will make for interesting negotiations – otherwise known as a head-on collision – though there is nothing wrong with setting out a strong starting position.

Davis also argues that the UK should take its time before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thus initiating the exit process with a two-year deadline. The logic of this delay,  opposed by some EU leaders and others because of the economically debilitating uncertainty it will generate, is to have informal negotiations first. This is something else EU leaders have rejected, which doesn’t mean informal talks won’t happen since, in fact, they happen all the time.

And there’s more. In the same article Davis says bilateral trade talks with non-EU countries should start straightaway so trade deals are in place by the time the exit actually happens. That does seem radically to under-estimate how long trade talks normally take. And it does raise an interesting set of questions. Since the EU has exclusive competence on trade negotiations (i.e., members don’t negotiate individually), does Davis propose to get EU agreement for setting that rule to one side? If so, what will he trade away to get it? Or does he propose simply to ignore the rule?

Other big questions

There are other questions about the construction of Theresa May’s first Cabinet. What is the meaning of the abolition of the Department for Energy and Climate Change? Likewise, what is the meaning of the Department for International Development having a new Secretary of State who once called for its abolition?

These are not small issues. But how Brexit is implemented remains the number one task. And the construction of May’s Cabinet reflects a calculation that it is a domestic UK political task, and an internal Conservative Party task, as well as an international diplomatic, trade and economic task. It will be important for all of who recognise the importance of the other big questions to stay out of the crowd distracted by the magician’s right hand.


An apology: I am on holiday and today there has been some very good weather, the first of the week. Perhaps that explains but does not excuse why my first draft characterised David Davis’s views as pro-European when what I meant was anti-EU. Which is what the article above now says. Not sure when, why or how that brain blur occurred.  DS


3 thoughts on “UK’s European policy – already broken? or magician’s distraction?

  1. It’s a very interesting point about Davis’ plans. I was reading in the Times this morning that under EU law it is illegal for us to sign trade negotiations with other states. This is includes when we’ve triggered article 50 and is valid until we fully exit.

    My concern is not that Davis plans to ignore this law, rather than he was ignorant of it. Like so many ‘leavers’ he is unaware of the details and facts, and has failed to plan accordingly. Their campaign was full high level ideas, without carefully considered consequences.

  2. Good point, Marcus. Ignorance is a possible explanation though I must say that I thought it was less likely in the case of Davis, whom I have always thought a serious politicians even when I disagree with his position, than in the case of Johnson, Gove, Farage and others.

    While we are on the not-too-sure-about-the-details theme, another question for the Minister for Brexit is exactly who will handle the bilateral trade negotiations that are all to be completed so fast? For over 40 years, Britain has not needed to negotiate the big international trade deals: it needs to have a position that it feeds into the EU discussion and decision-making, but it hasn’t needed to do the detailed, technical, fine legal point negotiating because that’s been done by the EU. So the UK does not currently employ officials with experience in that work.

    Ah well.

  3. Good post, thanks. Maybe the Three Brexiteers have been put where they are because chances are they won’t be able to deliver the Leave campaign’s promises. TM could just possibly be playing a very long Remain game…

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