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The politics of the Brexit deal

By Gareth Jones
03 December 2020

By Gareth Jones

Rumours have been flying around today that a post-Brexit trade deal is imminent. With less than a month to go before the transition period expires, UK and EU negotiators in London have been locked in talks, aiming to come to an agreement on the last remaining contentious issues – fishing rights in UK waters and ‘level playing field’ provisions for businesses. According to the Irish Foreign minister, Simon Coveney, a deal could be agreed within days, although some members of Michel Barnier’s negotiating team are more sceptical – stating this afternoon that “significant divergences remain”. 

While the outcome of talks is still uncertain – and a ‘no deal’ is still a realistic prospect, it does, at this moment in time, appear that momentum is building towards a deal. For many, this will be a relief. There is certainly a desire to among many to finally put Brexit – as a political issue – to bed. It will of course remain a policy and economic issue. Given the ‘thin’ nature of the deal that is being discussed – it will still represent a significant change in the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, impacting many businesses and likely to result in wider structural changes in our economy.  

But, as to whether Brexit remains a priority issue for politicians, media and a key driver for voters is less clear. This may depend, in part, on how Conservative backbenchers and the wider party membership react to the deal. The Prime Minister will be extremely wary of agreeing any deal with Brussels that could lead him to be accused of selling out – especially on something as emotive as rights in UK’s territorial waters. Johnson’s political future will depend on him limiting any potential rebellion from his own party – and as this week has shown on coronavirus restrictions, Conservative MPs are in a rebellious mood. A lot of attention is being paid to how Conservative-leaning media is currently covering negotiations – with some suggesting that the government communications strategy is focused on ‘rolling the pitch’ with these audiences (ie preparing the ground for a big announcement, which is reacted to favourably).

On the other side, the ongoing political debate on Brexit will also depend on Labour’s position on any agreed Brexit deal. If the deal comes to a vote in the House of Commons, Labour leader Keir Starmer has indicated that he will whip the party’s MPs to vote for the deal. Starmer’s rationale is clear – the only two options available are the deal agreed by the Prime Minister or no deal -- and not agreeing to secure a deal would look irresponsible. Starmer also wishes to position his party as having moved on from the Leave/Remain debate – stating in his Conference speech in September that “We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe. The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised that he will get a deal… …Our country needs a deal”

This position is no doubt part of a wider strategy to try to win back the former ‘red wall’ seats in the North and Midlands at the next election. This approach is supported by many in the Labour Party who believed that Labour’s position on Brexit was a key factor in them losing those seats in 2019. There are others, however, who believe that supporting the Prime Minister’s deal on Brexit would be a mistake – this includes several MPs on the frontbench, including reportedly – the Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds. Their view that the Prime Minister’s ‘thin’ deal with the EU will have a noticeable and harmful effect on the UK economy for years to come and by supporting the deal, Labour’s hands will be tied in being able to criticise the government for its economic management.

It is unclear, as yet, whether Brexit – or the UK’s ongoing relationship with the EU – will be a feature at the next election. It is highly likely, however, that the economy will be at the forefront of any debate. The two main parties know that being seen to be better trusted on the economy could be a major factor in their relative fortunes in 2024. The decisions made in the coming days could be crucial to that.