Brexit countdown will be on when MPs return to Westminster...

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 16 Aug 2018

The summer break has calmed Westminster but the lead-up to October’s Brexit talks will be fraught with political danger. Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly analyses what could be in store.

Parliament's six-week summer recess is a welcome respite for any beleaguered government.

The thinking goes that if MPs are being kept busy in their constituencies (or sunning themselves on beaches somewhere), then it puts a stop to the political manoeuvring in Westminster.

Theresa May felt so under siege during the scorching heat of July that her chief whip even made moves to start the summer break a few days earlier than planned – a suggestion that went down like a lead balloon with backbenchers. Taking an early holiday with great swathes of pre-Brexit legislation still to get through was not a good look.

But the Prime Minister’s reprieve can only last so long. MPs will be back in September and it will be crunch time for both Mrs May and her Chequers plan.

The Tory faithful have not been keen on Mrs May’s idea of adopting a common rulebook for goods with the EU, tying the UK to Brussels even after it has left the bloc. But those opposing the PM face a six week countdown, in the run-up to the European Council’s D-Day October meeting, to either change her mind – or install a new leader.

Here are the Brexit issues that MPs face on their return next month:

The Chequers bust-up

There is nowhere better than the south bank of the Humber to typify how much Mrs May’s Chequers’ plan has split the Tory faithful – even North Lincolnshire Brexiteers have struggled to find common ground over her Brexit vision.

Brigg MP Andrew Percy has called on Tories to unite behind the proposals, citing it as the only deal possible given a harder Brexit would fail to find a majority in the current hung Parliament.

Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers says he could just about stomach Chequers if it was to be the final deal (which he doubts it will be), while Gainsborough MP Sir Edward Leigh says the PM’s pitch “doesn’t make sense” and wants his leader to go back to negotiating for a free trade deal.

That is three MPs who all campaigned for Brexit but are not quite on the same page when it comes to a final outcome. The PM will have to find a plan that her MPs can unite around or face the strong possibility of a leadership challenge.

Will September mark the end of May?

MPs come back for only two weeks before conference season starts, meaning any plan to remove Mrs May from office would have to develop quickly.

If hard Brexiteer MPs really dislike her Chequers plan so much, will they be able to sit there and applaud her closing speech at their Birmingham conference on October 3?

Possibly – Margaret Thatcher was cheered to the rafters at the 1990 conference only to be deposed the following month. But with a major EU meeting looming on October 18, where it is believed a Brexit deal could be struck, MPs may not be able to risk Mrs May (or her common rulebook) still being around by the time the party descends on the Midlands.

Trading for fish

The great Brexit fear for coastal communities is whether the fishing industry will be sold out in exchange for free market access, in a repeat of the agreement Ted Heath signed upon joining the European Community in 1973.

Fisheries Minister George Eustice has in recent weeks looked to reassure that the Government sees the negotiations over future fishing rights and the trade talks as two separate strands of the exit settlement with Brussels.

That will be met with both relief and worry in Grimsby and Hull. Having once been the booming fishing ports, people voted strongly to leave, and they will no doubt enjoy knowing Britain will be an independent fishing nation again, free to set its own rules and divvy up its own quota.

But experts suggest there is a limit to how much an independent fishing regime would mean on the Humber, with the major hauls in the North Sea being caught up in colder Scottish waters and landed in Scotland as a result. Peterhead leads where Grimsby and Hull once vyed for the top title. 

A much bigger player on the economic scale is the Humber's fish processing industry – a sector that relies on easy movement of goods and cost-free trade to flourish and sustain its 5,000 jobs.

Grimsby's legacy is clear here, with much consiolidation on the North Bank, and seafood producers, such as Young’s and Seachill, will be hoping, along with the rest of the UK food industry, for trade with Europe to remain open and hassle free after Brexit.

The Chequers deal being pushed by the PM would go some way to protecting the seafood trade but, given its unpopularity in the Tory Party, it remains to be seen whether she can push it through.

Melanie Onn, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, is certainly not banking on Mrs May being able to get her deal done.

She called it a “fudge that she couldn’t even get her own Cabinet to unite behind – and that’s before it even gets to the European negotiators”.

Protecting Grimsby’s traditions

Ministers have revealed their plans for safeguarding British delicacies with protected food names, including Grimsby’s traditionally smoked fish .

But the scheme as it stands will only provide protection in the UK, meaning Grimsby’s smokehouses will be defended against imitations produced within Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

What the industry wants to see next is a guarantee that the EU will recognise the UK scheme and ensure that cheap European imitations cannot spring up. Those details still need to be worked out before the year is over – like much else in the Brexit talks.

Free ports

Trade Secretary Liam Fox this week made moves to strengthen links with UK ports after representatives accused ministers of having a “chronic lack” of understanding in how the logistics sector worked.

With 95 per cent of all goods coming in and out of Britain travelling through the country’s ports, ministers have been keen to talk up the role that the ports of Immingham and Grimsby can play. The pair are the largest ports by tonnage in the UK.

One idea being explored is free ports – an area the south bank of the Humber has been leading on, with ports-owner Associated British Ports (ABP) pushing for a trial to be held on the estuary.

Free ports

Liz Truss, number two at the Treasury, and Brexit minister Suella Braverman have visited the region independently recently to talk with ABP about the concept, taking in Hull and Immingham.

Supporters of free ports accept it could take a while to establish them after exit day but those in favour will be buoyed to hear Dr Fox about the prime role he see ports playing in Britain’s post-Brexit economy.

Dr Fox said ports “will become even more important as we leave the EU because, for the first time in over 40 years, we will be able to determine who we trade with.”

The Cabinet minister continued: “Opening up new export markets in fast-growing countries will bring prosperity to people across the country — not just exporters, but also those working at and near ports.”

Brexit delayed?

With all this talk of doing a deal, could Brexit in fact be delayed by another two years? The Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, which MPs are set to debate on their return in September, plans to push back the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act until the end of 2020, coinciding with the completion of the transition period.

It means, while the UK would cease to be represented politically in Brussels, the country would still abide by EU laws for another two years after the official exit date of March 29, 2019.

Plenty of time, remainers hope, for the second referendum clamour to grow stronger.

Conclusion

From the future of the Prime Minister to the continued prosperity of our ports, so much is still up in the air when it comes to Brexit. But with the Brexit egg-timer nearly out of sand, the time for answers is fast approaching.

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