Top 3 developments
• The UK Parliament returned from recess this week, securing the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons.
• The Labour Party officially began the leadership contest, with the result expected on 4th April.
• European Commissioner, Urusla von der Leyen, met with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to discuss next steps for the future relationship negotiations.
Get Brexit Done
Following the 31st January, Johnson has vowed to start a ‘new chapter for Britain’. He has declared that he will create a ‘people’s government’ which will deliver a ‘decade of prosperity and opportunity’. Given the number of traditional Labour supporters who voted for him in the Christmas election, delivering on the priorities of these voters will be an essential measure of success when it comes to the next General Election.
After being introduced to the House of Commons and easing through its second reading vote before Christmas, the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) returned to the chamber for its final commons stages this week. The final vote was a far cry from the nail-biting divisions of 2019 and the Bill has now passed to the Lord’s for further examination.
Ministers are confident that this will give parliament sufficient time to ratify the bill and for it to be approved by the European Parliament, meaning the government will have delivered on its pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ by January 31st.
Opposition parties did table numerous amendments to the WAB. This included a Labour proposal to require ministers to request a two-year transition extension, if there is no trade agreement by mid-June. The SNP also proposed a series of amendments designed to strengthen the rights of EU nationals living in the UK following Brexit. However, whilst proposals such as these may have blocked and delayed Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s Brexit attempts in 2019, the Prime Minister’s hefty majority meant these proposals never had a realistic chance of success.
Labour is up to its NEC in leadership contenders
The Labour leadership contest got in to full flow this week as 6 MPs have thrown their hat into the ring. On Monday the National Executive Committee (NEC) set out the rules for the leadership contest, the conclusion marked for 4th April. This means that Jeremy Corbyn will take the next 12 sessions of PMQs, and the new Labour leader will have just a month to pivot the party in a different direction before local elections in May.
The NEC also announced that Labour supporters will be able to vote in the election if they pay £25, but these applications can only be made during a two-day window next week. This is a significant increase to the £3 cost which led to over 100,000 people joining the Party in the 2015 contest.
All of the leadership candidates have been on the campaign trail, trying to carve out their positions and to separate themselves both from the other candidates and from Corbyn and the Party manifesto. Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips won applause from MPs at a hustings for warning that a serious change of course is needed for the Party. They called for a focus on the towns and cities in the North which had deserted the Party, and to seriously acknowledge the failings of the campaign, rather than dismiss it as a Brexit anomaly.
Candidates who were a part of the Shadow Cabinet have also been trying to distance themselves from the manifesto, with frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer calling it “overloaded” and a key reason for the Party’s defeat. Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry said the party’s promise to the electorate “just wasn’t convincing”, a step away from the assertions that the manifesto was indeed popular. Conversely, Shadow Business Secretary, Rebecca Long Bailey was criticised for giving Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership a mark of 10/10 in an interview with ITV News.
Starmer gained a decisive advantage on Wednesday evening as he won the endorsement from Unison, the country’s biggest trade union with 1.3 million members. He secured 14 out of the possible 20 votes on Unison’s Executive. This was a significant blow to Long-Bailey, who had been hoping to win their support, but she is expected to secure Unite – the second largest trade union, headed up by the influential Corbyn ally, Len McClusky .
Candidates have until Monday to secure the support of 22 MPs or MEPs in order to make it to the next round of voting. Four candidates have currently passed this threshold. Keir Starmer leading with 63 MPs, Long-Bailey second with 26, Lisa Nandy with 24 and Jess Phillips on 22. Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis, with 9 and 4 votes respectively, are highly unlikely to make it to the next round.
The European Commissioner, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Boris Johnson this week to begin discussions about the future relationship negotiations, which will not formally begin between the UK and EU until March. The talks are expected to take a “sector by sector” approach, which differs from the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” discussions previously had with Brussels. Having ruled out an extension, the UK Government reportedly see the sector by sector approach as a more productive and efficient way of conducting trade negotiations to ensure that a deal is agreed by the end of the transition period.
Boris Johnson seemed to suggest that the UK would be able to agree a Canada-style trade deal with the EU whilst also setting out pre-emptive red lines for the negotiations. These include no alignment with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and that the UK must “maintain control” of its fishing waters and immigration system. This approach from Boris Johnson seems to suggest an optimistic view for the negotiations, believing that good trade deal for the United Kingdom was possible to achieve by the end of the year.
However, the European Commissioner seemed to have a less optimistic view , suggesting that it would be difficult for the UK to secure a positive trade deal in the limited time frameAdditionally, von der Leyen also stated that unless the UK accepted the principle of a level playing field in rules and regulations after Brexit there would inevitably be barriers to trade between Britain and the bloc. Yet, it was reiterated that the EU wanted to remain in a close partnership with the UK, where possible.
The contrasting approaches to the negotiations suggests that the negotiations will be long, in an attempt to ensure that the deal benefits both parties sufficiently. That being said, there is a clear desire from both sides to ensure a productive and friendly working relationship once the UK formally leaves the European Union.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 31st January: Departure date from the European Union.
- March: Future relationship talks begin.
- 4th April: Result of the Labour Leadership Contest.
- 31st December: End of the transition period.
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