May-Era Civil Servants Frustrated Brexiteer Govt Negotiators Won’t Back Exit Delay

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 31: Pro Brexit supporters gather ahead of the Brexit Day Celebration Party hosted by Leave Means Leave at Parliament Square on January 31, 2020 in London, England. At 11.00pm on Friday 31st January the UK and Northern Ireland exits the European Union, 188 weeks after the …
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Theresa May-era civil servants are said to be frustrated that the Conservative government’s EU trade deal negotiating team will not consider an extension of the transition period.

Britain’s chief trade negotiator David Frost oversees a team of some 40 specialists comprised of Whitehall career bureaucrats and figures appointed by the Brexit-backing Conservative leadership.

Multiple sources are reported to have told the London financial newspaper City A.M. that the “true believers”, many of which came from the Vote Leave campaign group, are sticking by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s position that the UK will not seek to extend the transition period. They also are said to be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table if they cannot agree on a deal with Brussels.

This reportedly troubles the civil servants within the negotiating team. One source described them as “more or less the same group…that were there under the May years” and said that they “have very different attitudes from David Frost and the people he’s brought in around him”.

A source close to Mr Frost told the financial newspaper: “There is no debate about this issue and ministers continue to be clear that extending the transition period would prolong the negotiations and increase uncertainty, whilst also leaving us bound by EU legislation and obliged to make further payments into the EU budget.

“The negotiating team — which works within a policy remit set by ministers — operates as one, with civil servants and political advisers collaborating extremely closely.”

However, another source told City A.M. that while the team’s divisions currently do not represent a problem, it may do so in the coming months.

The report came only days after David Liddington, former Prime Minister May’s de facto deputy, claimed that it was “inevitable” that the UK would agree to an extension of the transition period due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During her brief premiership, Brexiteers criticised Mrs May for capitulating to EU demands on issues such as the Irish border and for twice delaying Brexit even though she had promised 108 times to take the UK out of the EU on March 29th, 2019.  She was eventually pressured to resign, with Vote Leave alumnus Boris Johnson winning the leadership race. However, after inheriting a Remainer-dominated government, he called a snap election in December 2019, winning an 80-seat majority and clearing out from Parliament the Europhiles who had attempted to frustrate Brexit.

The United Kingdom officially left the European Union on January 31st, 2020, and is currently in a transition period where the country remains subject to the bloc’s courts and rules. During this time, Brussels’ and London’s negotiators are working on a new trade relationship. If sufficient progress is not made on a trade deal by June, the British government has said that it will withdraw from negotiations and use the remainder of the time to prepare for an orderly move onto World Trade Organization (WTO) terms with the EU.

Sources close to EU-UK trade negotiations have said that several European countries agree that the UK leaving with or without a deal would make little difference given the current turmoil caused by the Chinese virus. A diplomatic source had said: “Any disruption to trade if a deal is not negotiated by the end of the year will be buried… Negative effects of the exit from the single market are now cushioned in the wider context of the corona crisis.”

“The single market is basically suspended now anyway… So it’s probably the best situation they could hope for to get this done. Why not take the hit now and bank on any unilateral EU or bilateral national measures to alleviate the worst effects? And then trust that a modern service economy will come out of the crisis quicker than the more traditional economies of the eurozone,” they added.

Wolfgang Münchau, the associate editor of the Financial Times, came to a similar conclusion. Writing in the April 25th edition of The Spectator, Mr Münchau observed:

When Brexit talks resume, the UK government should be emboldened by recent events. Before the lockdown, the calculation of the costs and benefits of a hard Brexit looked different to how it looks now. These costs were never easy to quantify because they depend to a large extent on how companies adjust. But whatever these costs would have been, many of them have already been incurred. Lockdown has in any case already seen countries all over Europe tear up the fundamental principles of the single market, such as freedom of movement of people and of non-essential goods. Borders have been closed. Some countries have imposed a state of emergency and there has been a de facto suspension of EU fiscal and competition rules. The EU’s red tape is being cordially ignored.

So if Brexit talks do not end in a deal, it would be less of a jump to adopt the rules of the World Trade Organisation now than it would have been before. Most of the supply chain disruptions have already occurred. A WTO trading relationship would mean Britain applying tariffs (averaging 4 per cent). In normal times, this would have some noticeable economic impact: prices would rise and the volume of many imports and exports would fall. But compared to the great lockdown, the effect of a WTO Brexit is small. If the two were to be folded together, the economic effects would be hard to disentangle.

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