Many Brexiteers and leavers will have been unsettled by last week’s General Election result which could seriously disrupt the Brexit process and leave minsters battling against the clock as the date of our departure gets closer.
Instead of the expected double or even triple digit majority which would’ve guaranteed the smooth parliamentary passage of the final Brexit deal and enabling and supporting legislation, Theresa May is now nursing a wafer-thin majority secured by partnering with the DUP.
Suddenly hopes of being able to steamroll proceedings through the Commons have vanished and the Prime Minister is once again reliant on the backing of opposition parties to ensure everything is in place before we leave in March 2019.
Of course, in a democracy many people will say this is how it should be but with the clock counting down while talks are underway, May needs to have some certainty about the timetable and her reduced majority doesn’t provide that.
Even more importantly, the new parliamentary arithmetic also means the PM can’t be certain her party will be in government at the end of the Brexit process.
While much of the work will be carried out by officials rather than ministers, a sudden change of government could leave a new ministerial team disadvantaged and scrabbling to catch up, putting them at a serious disadvantage compared to their EU counterparts.
But Theresa May has it in her power to avoid such an eventually by inviting Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, to join David Davis’s negotiating team as an observer.
Given the areas of overlap between the Conservative and Labour stances on Brexit, it may even be desirable to have Starmer represent the UK in talks covering these areas, though of course he would be working under Davis who would remain in charge of the overall strategy.
Doing this would allow May to reframe the Brexit process domestically as a national endeavour rather than a Tory pet project, and allow Starmer to speedily take over the talks at minimal notice should the government change political control.
Of course, she should seek a reciprocal commitment that a senior Tory would likewise be included should Starmer suddenly find himself as the responsible minister.
By including Davis’s shadow in the UK’s negotiating team, May would ensure Labour knew first hand exactly what the EU was offering and asking for in return and fully understood the reasons why specific European demands were rejected.
This transparent and open approach would significantly reduce the potential for mischief by the EU which might, faced with a sticking point, be tempted to engage in partial and partisan briefings that areas of contention were all down to the UK side’s unreasonableness.
We saw after Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘private’ dinner how quickly the EU engages in such behaviour when it senses it wont get its own way. But Brussels would be unable to rely on such tactics if it knew each and every conversation was witnessed by a non-government figure who might himself one-day become our chief negotiator.
As well as tightening the lips of Eurocrats, securing this level of cross-party co-operation would hopefully provide reassurance to all UK voters that their concerns were being reflected and protected during the talks.
In addition, by securing Labour’s buy-in into the core Brexit deal, May would stand a good chance of easing the passage of Brexit-related legislation through Parliament as many points of conflict would be avoided.
Much has been spoken in recent months – including by the Prime Minister – of the need to bring the country together and heal divisions caused by last June’s referendum. Adopting the sort of ‘big tent’ approach to the Brexit talks that I suggest above would be a good way to turn the words into action.