This piece originally appeared in Real Deals.
Containing the fallout from Brexit was never going to be straightforward, and the recent High Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50 is yet another chapter in the saga. The next instalment will be on 5th December, when the government appeals to the Supreme Court over the High Court’s decision that parliament needs to be formally consulted before Brexit negotiations can begin.
The politics around the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the triggering of Article 50 should not be underplayed, as Parliament turns its focus away from the domestic agenda and back onto what the country’s future relationship will be with Europe. Politicians on all sides of the House have used the discussions of the last few weeks on whether parliament needs to vote on Brexit negotiations to voice their individual opinion on the best future direction for the country. These voices are not confined to the backbenches. As the recently leaked Deloitte memo shows divisions between hard and soft Brexiteers are creeping into Theresa May’s cabinet and hindering No.10’s ability to agree on a workable negotiation strategy.
Given the potential delays to the process, Theresa May’s approach now appears to be on issuing an Act of Parliament to ensure she can still trigger Article 50 by her self-imposed deadline of March 2017. Rumours in Westminster are that this act may be as short as a single paragraph to allow for minimal interference from parliamentarians on both sides of the House. Amendments would be difficult to propose in such a situation, given parliamentary procedure states they must be relevant to the original text. Number 10 has publicly denied it’s taking this approach, yet lobby journalists are reporting such a bill could be pushed through the Commons in under two weeks.
While the government deliberates over its Article 50 strategy, opposition parties remain divided. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell announced, “if Article 50 needs to be triggered in Parliament, Labour will not seek to block or deny it”. However, there is a question about how many of Labour’s 45 London MPs will follow the party line given the city’s resounding support for Remain. Any rebels are likely to be joined by the SNP and a re-invigorated Liberal Democrat party whose candidate in the forthcoming Richmond By-election, Sarah Olney, is standing on an anti-Brexit ticket with the backing of the party check it out.
It would be impossible to make an exhaustive list of all the political risks feeding off the current debate on Brexit, especially given the government has revealed little in terms of their negotiating strategy. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, former Labour leader Ed Miliband and Tory minister Nick Herbert reportedly want to table a motion forcing the government to reveal its approach to Brexit negotiations. This would put additional public pressure on the Prime Minister to disclose what Brexit really means for the UK. Mrs May is reportedly willing to publish more material on her strategy before Christmas, however, it is unlikely to satisfy MPs looking for full transparency.
All the while, global currency values fluctuate in reaction to any sign of the UK government’s approach to Brexit. Number 10 is acutely aware that business leaders could start becoming wary of reinvesting in the UK given the repercussions of repeated political upheaval. Theresa May’s recent CBI speech alluded to this, saying any such Brexit deal would be one “that is going to work best for business in the UK”. Given this, it is likely that the Prime Minister will seek to agree a transition period with the EU after 2019 to avoid any ‘cliff edge’ following the conclusion of the two year formal negotiation period. In the shorter term, the government will be inclined to embark on an appeasement strategy for businesses, especially after many caught wind of the sweetheart deal given to Nissan last month. Lobbyists working on behalf of big pharma, the tech sector and UK aviation are reportedly already lining up to press the government on future trading terms. Britain’s recent rise to tenth position in the World Bank’s league tables of business-friendly tax regimes could account for little if investors decide to shrug off the UK for more politically stable environments. The government’s much anticipated ‘industrial strategy’ could therefore become a core component of the government’s plans to calming business’ fears in the months ahead.
The weakening value of the pound also means the government could be forced into taking action to encourage consumer spending should import costs grow. Number 10’s latest acronym, ‘Jams’ (‘Just About Managing’) refers to Theresa May’s commitment to taking a more active approach to helping middle-income families across Britain. This commitment could be increasingly important should sterling react badly to any future political announcements and prices start to creep up. This hands-on approach could be a calculated political decision at proving the UK is still a sound place to invest, while protecting poorer families who are already most vulnerable from any rise in inflation rates that may come in next year.
The prospect of formal parliamentary debate on Article 50 also raises hope that investors will discover more on the government’s plans for future immigration models. The Home Office has repeatedly stated their intentions to reduce net-migration to the tens of thousands, yet have so far provided no analysis on the economic consequences of such a move. Policy wonks across Westminster are asking what this means post-Brexit, especially for those parts of the UK economy disproportionately staffed by low-skilled workers from the EU. 75% of EU citizens working in the UK would not meet the current visa requirements for non-EU workers. Expanding the current work permit system and giving more generous options to EEA nationals, therefore seems the most likely route at present. Yet without confirmation from government this will continue to be one amongst a range of options.
The issues surrounding the upcoming Supreme Court ruling are clearly cause for concern for Theresa May’s officials and members of the business community. Ironically, should the government lose their appeal, the next legal step available to them would be to the European Court of Justice. The political upheaval, not to mention the media backlash, from this scenario makes it highly unlikely, meaning Theresa May’s “bombproof” Article 50 bill could be the government’s only remaining path.
2016 has been a year dominated by political uncertainty. With the rise of Trump in America, and Europe facing imminent referenda and elections, Britain may have thought its moment in the spotlight had passed. However, the Brexit debate is only just beginning and the Supreme Court decision could send the British political establishment into another frenzy.
Navigating this situation is complex given the intricacies of government and the dynamics of Westminster policymaking. However, keeping a close eye on political movements means investors can help make more informed decisions in the coming months, and ensure they are in a strong position to maximise opportunities as they arise.
Westminster Advisers, 23 November 2016