You could call it ironic that the EU’s 27 governments seem to be speaking with one voice on Brexit, while the one government they face speaks with many.
So far in the Brexit saga, the EU27 – the 27 EU member states left after Britain leaves – have refrained from making any meaningful statements about Brexit individually.
Although the UK government plans to visit Europe’s capitals to discuss Brexit with individual states, EU leaders constantly refer to the European Commission’s negotiating team if they want to make real progress in the talks.
Meanwhile British Prime Minister Theresa May is for the most part kept from discussing Brexit at EU summits to prevent her sowing divisions in the bloc.
The result is that virtually all communications from the EU’s side of the table come from Michel Barnier, the negotiator appointed by the EU to speak on behalf of the EU27.
For the UK government it’s a different story. Senior government ministers constantly contradict and rebuff each other in public.
There are now basically three voices in the UK government arguing different things about Brexit.
There’s the PM Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis, who pursue a hard Brexit and maintain the UK government is prepared to walk away without a deal.
There’s Chancellor Philip Hammond, who believes the election result warrants a softer approach to Brexit.
And there’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who insists the government isn’t preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario as he claims this outcome is “vanishingly unlikely”.
Apparently the UK government simultaneously fears, doesn’t fear and denies the possibility of a ‘no deal’ scenario.
It’s raising ever more doubts about whether May’s administration can actually realise its goal of “getting the best possible Brexit deal”.
May’s damaged authority
It’s hard to see the confused British Brexit strategy in isolation of Theresa May botching the snap election.
It was still relatively easy to follow the government line on Brexit before the election – no single market and no customs union membership – for which May sought a mandate.
This all changed after 8 June.
The election result, which saw the Conservatives lose their absolute majority, has damaged the PM’s authority.
While May is happy to pretend the election hasn’t changed anything, her Chancellor Philip Hammond isn’t so sure.
Hammond has recently been calling for a transitional phase in which Britain retains access to the Single Market at least until a final deal is agreed, calling this “economic logic”.
It directly contradicts Brexit Secretary Davis’s claim that, whatever happens, Britain will be striking its own trade deals the minute it’s left the EU in spring 2019.
Hammond and Davis clashed just a week after the Brexit negotiations had started. Yesterday another senior Tory weighed in.
Boris Johnson, deputised to represent the government in the Commons, openly contradicted his colleague David Davis.
While Davis claims to be spending half his time preparing for a ‘no deal’ outcome, the Foreign Secretary told MPs the government has no Plan B because it doesn’t need one.
It rather undermined May and Davis’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ negotiating tactics.
Johnson’s leadership ambitions are well known and his dream of becoming Prime Minister may simply be getting the better of him.
It is rumoured May faces a leadership challenge in September, just before the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. It wouldn’t surprise me if the former London mayor would throw his hat in the ring.
As senior cabinet ministers could be positioning themselves for a leadership contest, Theresa May has resolved to reach out to other parties. But as long as she appears weak, she won’t be able to count on support from the opposition.
If May can’t realign her party, she’ll find herself between a rock and a hard place.
A hard Brexit deal is likely to be defeated in Parliament, while a soft Brexit deal could see her lose the support from a large faction within her own party.
Britain needs clarity
Obviously this situation cannot continue for much longer.
Government voices openly disagreeing about the same policy isn’t a good look, but more importantly Britain deserves to know what Brexit to expect.
Businesses need sufficient time to prepare contingency plans if the UK government is looking to leave both the EU’s Single Market and customs union.
As two years seem too short a period to settle the divorce and agree future trade deals, it would be helpful to know what will be decided for the transitional period.
Investment could be put on hold as long as there’s no clarity about Britain’s future relationship with the EU, for example.
And generally, the British public needs a reliable source keeping them informed about the progress and the direction of the Brexit talks.
Realistically there are two options to remedy the chaotic state of affairs.
Either Theresa May reasserts her authority within her party and finds a way to keep her ministers’ personal ambitions in check. Or, failing that, the party will have to replace her now to put an end to ministers breaking ranks.
Less desirable options for the government: a leadership challenge in September (more negotiating time wasted) or another general election (Conservatives are unlikely to do better than they did in June).
The clock is ticking. The longer the dissent in Britain’s governing party lasts, the more difficult its task of negotiating a good Brexit deal becomes.