With two years having elapsed since the referendum, it appears little has changed with the public on either side of the debate. More or less, the voters still have the same view as they did on that landmark day in June 2016. Although it must be said that many ‘Remainers’ now think the government should get on with what seems inevitable and deliver Brexit. But even for those who backed ‘Leave’, the past two years have been challenging.
The former campaign director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, occasionally writes about the government’s mishandling of the Brexit process, no doubt feeling the progress is slow. The chief executive of the winning campaign, Matthew Elliott, takes a more considered view.
He believes most of the progress will be made “in the final few weeks, if not days or hours”, dismissing any suggestion that not enough work has been done in the last couple of years.
While Elliott has a few quibbles with some of the decisions that have been made over the past two years — particularly Teresa May’s decision not to take into account the voices of businesses prior to the election and her reluctance to give status guarantees to EU citizens at the time — he sees no sign of wobbles over leaving the Single Market or customs union because of the knock-on effects it would have on Britain’s ability to sign trade deals with other countries.
But Elliott is frustrated that the government hasn’t been clear what a no-deal scenario looks like.“It needs to be clear to the public and to Brussels that we are willing to walk away,” he says.
“It’s only through having that no-deal scenario set out and prepared for that you can get the best possible deal for the UK.” For Elliott, everything comes down to the crunch weeks ahead of the European Council in October this year.
He said: “By that point government will have got all relevant legislation through, published a white paper, have a clear idea of what their stance is, have already discussed the money — then it’s just about what happens in the negotiation room.” Others, however, are not so confident.
Brexit specialist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Shanker Singham, who has been influential in shaping policy, says a change of strategy is needed.
“We have to retake the initiative. The only way for the UK to do that is put text on the negotiating table. The time for speeches and while paper is over.”
Sangham argues that putting “regulatory chapters” in front of Brussels would get the cogs going for various reasons — not only because there would be something concrete the EU could work with, but also because it might help “divide” the member states which he believes would work to the UK’s advantage.
But the “UK’s dithering” means that right now Sangham puts just a 50-50 chance on a successful conclusion within the time frame.
He cites the to-and-fro over the customs debate as a “classic example” of the PM’s political timidity but one which is baffling to him and his colleagues.
He said: “We don’t understand why the government is incapable of moving forward on anything.”
David Henig from the European Centre for International Political Economy, is of similar view.
“We don’t have any certainty for businesses about their trade relations. There is no sensible post-March plan for trade agreements. It doesn’t add up to much,” he said.
One of the main criticisms of the government’s “obsessive secrecy”, which comes down from the PM, meaning businesses can’t begin to start planning.
He fears by December the government will be “in crisis mode, frantically trying to pull together a deal.” Ultimately the decision will come down to Ireland, Henig claims.” If it wasn’t for Ireland you wouldn’t have had this delay,” he said.
Sam Lowe, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, claims there is “no coherent vision” of what the UK sees as its future relationship with the EU, exacerbated by divisions in the Cabinet.
Lowe believes things could tip towards a partial Single Market membership for goods and believes the government would like parliament to “force its hand” into staying in the customs union.
Lowe claims officials on both sides admit the period for transition currently agreed, until December 2020, isn’t long enough and that “some kind of implementation period will be required.”
The author is our foreign correspondent based in the UK. He can be reached at email@example.com