No 10 reiterated plans for May to set out her negotiating aims after the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s top diplomat in Brussels, intensified fears that the government is ill-prepared for the complex talks due to begin by the end of March.
But backbench MPs say they would like to see something more than a broad-brush statement about prioritising immigration control, or aiming at the “best deal for Britain”, if they are to support the government’s stance.
“People want detail. People need detail. If the prime minister does what she did as home secretary and not say much then she’s going to really find it difficult to keep the party with her,” said Bath MP Ben Howlett, who backed May’s leadership campaign.
He called for the prime minister to set out clearly where she stands on issues including membership of the customs union and the single market – and, where she cannot offer more detail, give reasons.
Anna Soubry, the former business minister, and informal convener of a group dubbed the “new bastards”, who are calling on May to maintain a close relationship with the European Union, said: “She needs to show she’s prepared to stand up to the hardline, fall-off-a-cliff Brexiteers and say, ‘no, we’re not going to do it your way’”.
Soubry said she and her backbench allies were keen to support May if the supreme court ruled later this month that the government must pass legislation before triggering article 50, the formal process for Brexit. But she said they hoped to see much more detail first.
Moderate MPs have been concerned by personal attacks launched by senior Brexiters on Rogers since he resigned earlier this week with a letter to colleagues criticising “muddled thinking” and urging them to “speak truth to power”.
Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland secretary, yesterday accused Rogers, a long-serving diplomat, of being “emotionally needy,” while Iain Duncan Smith said on Wednesday that he could not be trusted.
The fresh attacks on Rogers came as Norway’s prime minister warned that Britain’s four-decade membership of the EU has left it lacking experience in international negotiations, which will hamper it in trade talks and may lead to “a very hard Brexit”.
Erna Solberg, speaking to Reuters at a meeting of Bavaria’s centre-right CSU party in Germany, said that the UK worked slowly in discussions due to a lack of recent experience of entering talks alone. “We do feel that sometimes when we are discussing with Britain, that their speed is limited by the fact that it is such a long time since they have negotiated,” she said.
Solberg said she hoped the UK would be able to negotiate an agreement that kept it close to the EU, but it would not be easy. “I fear a very hard Brexit, but I hope we will find a better solution,” she said.
Her remarks reinforced those made by Rogers, who besides attacking “ill-founded arguments” in his resignation email, warned of the lack of negotiating experience in the British civil service compared with EU institutions.
“Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the [European] commission or in the council,” he wrote.
Jonathan Marland, a former trade envoy for David Cameron who chairs the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, also said he did not think Whitehall had the skills to conduct successful Brexit talks.
“My fear is that Whitehall as a whole has really not got the skill set to deliver a really hard-nosed negotiation,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And I think we have really got to up-skill in that area to do it.”
The European commission handles trade and many other negotiations on behalf of the EU’s 28 member states. Some reports have suggested that when Britain, which joined the bloc in 1973, voted to leave it had no trade negotiators of its own.
Norway is not part of the EU but contributes to the bloc’s budget in exchange for membership of the single market, for which it is also obliged to accept the EU’s fundamental principles, including free movement.
Meanwhile, two civil service unions, the FDA and Prospect, have called for an end to the 1% pay cap, claiming their members are having to work much longer hours in the run-up to Brexit.
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