Brexit divisions emerge as Whitehall draws up leave scenarios


Civil servants have been asked to assess the impact of a wide range of Brexit scenarios, from full membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) to a system under which some Europeans would need visas just to holiday in Britain.

Theresa May gathers her cabinet at Chequers on Wednesday with Brexit at the top of the agenda, and the scenarios exercise has already started to expose potential divisions in government.

The scenario planning is taking place across government with reports expected to be fed into the Brexit department run by David Davis. However, the findings are likely to remain internal.

Some officials at the Foreign Office are pushing for “as much Europe as possible” while others in the Home Office are reluctant to consider full EEA membership or single market access because their priority is an immigration clampdown, according one Whitehall source.

They said government departments were thinking of the possible forms that Brexit could take along a “continuum” stretching from heavy access to the single market with limited restrictions on immigration to stringent border controls alongside trade tariffs imposed under WTO rules.

May has asked every cabinet minister, most of whom campaigned to remain in the EU, to set out how Brexit could be a success in their areas, and will be expecting them to report back on Wednesday.

Britain Stronger In Europe, which led the remain campaign, is being rebranded and will relaunch on Friday as Open Britain, to push for a deal in which the UK is open for business, trade and investment.

The group, which is backed by a cross-party group of politicians including Anna Soubry, Pat McFadden, Chuka Umunna, Nick Clegg and Dominic Grieve, has more than 500,000 registered supporters from the referendum campaign.

Umunna, who also chairs a new group called Vote Leave Watch that will scrutinise Brexit negotiations, said: “The problem the prime minister has got is that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is a meaningless soundbite. No one knows what Brexit will look like.”

He argued there was no precedent for the EU to grant single market access without free movement. “That is the circle that the prime minister has to square,” he said, claiming the other key issue was the promise of £350m a week for the NHS.

Responding to news that May will not give MPs a vote before triggering article 50, the mechanism that starts the clock on Brexit negotiations, Umunna said she would need to bring other aspects of the negotiations to the House of Commons. “Parliament will have to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act which provides for primacy of EU law,” he said.

Tom Brake, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesperson, accused the leading figures for Brexit in government, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, of doing nothing but squabbling about the size of their departments.

“It’s about time they start actually considering the UK’s future,” he said. “Any Brexit deal which does not include membership of the single market will have a profoundly negative impact on the UK’s economy.”

A number of groups are springing up among Brexit campaigners who want to ensure that the government does not water down the withdrawal from the EU. Some are putting together a core Vote Leave group whose activities will be separate to the ongoing work of their former chief executive Matthew Elliott and plans being put in place by the donor Arron Banks.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that people earning less than £20,000 a year, with lower qualifications and living in low-skilled areas, were the driving force behind Brexit. Prof Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, found that voters felt pushed to the margins of society and left behind.

Some Brexit campaigners will hope to represent the 17 million leave voters in different ways. Steve Baker, former chair of the Conservatives for Britain group, said he would now be leading the European Research Group.

“Conservative MPs will be supporting the government and I in particular am not interested in oppositional activity. I only want to be constructive in supporting the government’s policy, which is to leave the EU,” Baker said. He added he was confident that May would deliver a “uniquely British deal”.

Baker has been critical of the suggestion that pro-EU officials will try to water down the plans for Brexit and ensure it is at the weakest end of the scenarios.

The Whitehall source echoed reports that Treasury officials were lining up at one end of the spectrum. He said they were pushing hard for economic access, and said a similar position was being taken by those working in the Foreign Office, particularly in the European sections.

However, special advisers to the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, will be urging his departmental staff to remember that he was a vocal proponent for Brexit.

The source indicated that Home Office officials were focused on immigration, with worries about the cost of implementing any extra border controls. However, one scenario could involve some European citizens, from countries further away, needing visas for holidays.

Officials at big infrastructure departments such as defence and transport were keen to protect their own projects while staff at Defra were “delighted to kill off the rural payments agency” that administers the EU’s common agricultural policy, the source added.

A briefing note(pdf) from the House of Commons library highlights the huge number of decisions the British government will have to take about its future relationship with the EU. It raises the possibility that the UK could allow EU citizens to remain only if they do not claim benefits, and restrict their access to social housing.

“If Brexit means an end to free movement rights, the UK would be able to impose restrictions on access to many social security benefits via immigration law, for example by making EU/EEA nationals’ leave to remain in the UK subject to a condition that they have no recourse to public funds,” the briefing says.

The government will also have to think about whether to stop providing student loans and UK-rate tuition fees for EU students.