Inside the Brexit tribe: What do senior Eurosceptics make of Britain's negotiation effort so far?

Remainers in the party—and in the Cabinet—are antagonising some on the Conservatives' Brexit wing

August 22, 2017
Brexit Secretary David Davis with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Monasse Thierry/AND/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
Brexit Secretary David Davis with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Monasse Thierry/AND/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

"It is highly unlikely the EU will stick to a punitive line." Last year, two weeks before the EU referendum, I went to David Davis's office. One leg slung over the arm of his chair, he insisted that there was little chance the EU would seek to punish Britain in the event of a "Leave" vote. “You're talking tiny fractions of a per cent.”

His comments were typical of Brexiteers in the run-up to the referendum, but that now seems a long time ago. Little progress has been made since negotiations started, with all concessions so far coming from our own side. Having promised the “row of the summer” over the Brexit timetable, Davis acceded to the EU’s proposed timings on the very first day of talks.

The response to this on the "Remain" side has been predictable: despair, mixed with a helping of "I told you so." But what about in the Brexit camp? Ahead of negotiations re-starting next week, what do committed Eurosceptics make of Britain's progress so far? Disheartening, or is a breakthrough just round the corner?

These talks "were never going to be a walk in the park," Conservative MP and prominent Leaver Tim Loughton told me, although he blames “inveterate Remoaners” for emboldening the EU. Are there any of those in his own party, I asked? His reply was just one word: “Soubry.” What about in the cabinet—any there? “Yes.”

Some of his colleagues had similarly harsh words for the remaining remainers. Owen Paterson was one of three MPs to found Vote Leave. While not calling out any MPs by name, he echoed Loughton’s sentiments: "Those in denial must take note, and understand the reality of the situation."

"Asked if there were any 'inveterate Remoaners' in his own party, Loughton's reply was just one word: 'Soubry.'"
Remainers may not deserve all the blame. One senior Tory—who himself backed "Leave"—told me that figures on both sides are interfering in the negotiation process. "Everyone is making David Davis's life difficult," he said. "However well he does, he will not be a winner."

David Howell, a Tory grandee who served in Margaret Thatcher's government, concurred. Both Remainers and Eurosceptics, he said, "are wallowing in unreality.” The former have shown a “total failure to understand,” while the latter engage in “facile talk of 'taking back control.'” Worse still is the phrase “will of the people”—“which any sixth-former knows does not and cannot exist!”

Howell warned that, thanks to Tory squabbling, there are “yawning—possibly fatal—gaps in the UK policy approach.”

Whoever they lay the blame with, almost all those I spoke to agreed Britain has a problem. Theresa May is stuck between a rock and a hard place—and the UK will find it supremely difficult to strike an agreement with the EU if it cannot even reach one with itself.

More internal disputes will break into the open as negotiations resume. Steve Bullock, a former British EU negotiator, told me: “If the UK government does really want an agreement, it needs to take its head out of the sand, stop bickering with itself and engage properly. If it doesn’t, the prospects for any agreement, let alone one the UK wants, look very grim indeed.”

One particular point of contention concerns the Brexit “divorce bill”: despite initial insistence from the UK government that it owes nothing—and Boris Johnson's comment that the EU could “go whistle” for its money—the government appears to have now backed down. Earlier this month the Telegraph reported that Britain is prepared to pay a £36bn settlement to the EU to get trade talks moving. The PM, who risks infuriating her backbenchers if she presses ahead in this way, quickly distanced herself from the figure.
"There are yawning—possibly fatal—gaps in the UK policy approach”
Nonetheless, there does seem to have been some concession. In a written statement to parliament, Brexit minister Joyce Anelay said the government would “work with the EU to determine a fair settlement of the UK’s ... obligations as a departing member state.”

The EU is standing firm, but payment of any sum will cause May a headache. John Redwood, a Conservative MP who has campaigned for Brexit since entering the Commons in 1983, told me: “The UK does not owe the rest of the EU any money over and above the regular contributions we make up to the date of leaving … the EU did not give us any money for past liabilities when we joined, so we do not owe them any money for future liabilities when we leave."

All things considered, is there a way forward? "It is now vital that we step up the momentum,” Loughton said. The government's publication of Brexit position papers this week—on subjects ranging from the European Court of Justice to data protection—is the right approach, he suggested.

Paterson also remains optimistic. “A comprehensive free trade agreement is vital,” he said, but stressed that a deal of this kind “should be easy to achieve.”

“For all the criticism of her the PM is absolutely right to continue with the mantra that 'no deal is better than a bad deal,'” said Loughton. But tensions are clearly running high in the Tory party. He took a parting shot at his former leader. If David Cameron had been as competent as his successor, Loughton said, he might have seen the EU vote go the other way.