Dog days

11 August 2017

While under-secretaries reach for long drinks under blistering skies, their betters hike the shores of Lake Garda. Over these dog days, information reaches us slowly and indirectly, if at all. Any sensible blogger has knocked off for the month. Draw your own conclusions, as I instead take stock.

Public opinion is summarised here. To simplify, no matter how the question is asked, voters remain split to within the margin of error on the rights and wrongs of leaving the EU. On the other hand, the government has lost its command of public confidence on its tactics, though there is little evidence of disquiet as to the economic outcome. Perhaps the slowing economy will alter the latter.

As to political conditions, a crisp partisan divide has yet to emerge. Leadership of the major parties continues to support leaving, in a mirror-image of the position for forty years after the last referendum when everyone respectable was the other way. Can this keep up? Impossible to tell: Brexiteers should thank heavens that Corbyn is a sixties Trot for whom the EU is forever a bosses’ ramp.

Others have also taken stock. On 3 August, the outgoing French Ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Berman, commented that the June election was a “game changer”, making a hardline outcome less likely. I still see “soft Brexit” as incoherent domestically and unacceptable in Brussels, so I don’t really get what she was on about - all the more so given the popular and political position outlined above.

On 5 August, the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervin King, told the Today programme that the UK needs to prepare fall-back positions against the possibility of talks breaking down. This came as a corrective to the BBC’s customary line-up of hand-wringers. Oddly enough, the Beeb’s gloom seems to be unavailing, with a July canvas showing “joy” at Brexit marginally outpolling “despair”.

On 8 August, the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, made an uncharacteristically muddled intervention on post-Brexit arrangements. However reasonable to seek definitive guidance from the executive, he got into a tangle on trade regulation, where there is ample precedent for failing to embrace an adjudicative role for the ECJ.

Finally a dusty topic which has generated some unexpected heat. The EU’s negotiators have published ten “essential principles”. The DExEu has published just three “position papers". The two sides have also published a “joint technical note” on citizens’ rights, setting out areas of agreement and disagreement. I’ve always seen this disparity in the volume of paperwork as negotiating tactics by Brussels: publish guff in order to make it hard to row back. But others see things otherwise, with rumours that the wily Brits plan to slip out more position papers while the Europeans are on holiday. Given public-sector holiday rotas, I see this as something of a stretch.

On the other hand, I place more weight on hints that DExEU is going over the EU’s bill with a fine legal toothcomb. This is particularly after reading a piece decrying such an approach from the FT’s Euro blogger (I can’t link to this due to the paywall). The author joins many of his colleagues as an unapologetic sounding-board for Brussels. So I’m detecting a bit of pain in the Berlaymont. Certainly the figures seem to be coming down.

This takes us back to leadership. If the UK team does show some wiliness - or even a bit of direction (you’ve heard the stories of keynote speeches in early September) - then May can limp on. If not, the conference will do for her, as dog days give way to dog-fights. It’s as simple as that.