Theresa May’s honeymoon is over. The government’s Brexit plans have started to unravel. May told the G20 that a points-based immigration system – the preferred model of Boris Johnson, her foreign secretary – won’t work.
David Davis said it would be hard to stay in the single market if the government wanted to restrict EU migration, only to be slapped down by No 10. Then Liam Fox labelled British businesses “too fat and lazy” to export successfully. Not the smoothest of starts to this vital period for the UK.
The priority in the negotiations must be to protect British jobs, British workers and the British economy.
The single market is the trading arrangement that benefits our economy most. The government’s focus must be on ensuring that Britain retains full, unfettered access to it. Without it, key UK industries like financial services and car manufacturing will be hit and our economy will suffer.
Remember when the Leave campaign promised that we would not lose single market access? Or that there would be no increased barriers to trade? Or that Brexit would not damage our economy?
The only way to keep these promises is to remain in the single market. Reform should be possible on freedom of movement, perhaps by introducing an emergency brake, or mandating that EU citizens must have a job offer before they can take up residency in the UK.
Mainstream parties in EU capitals will be willing to discuss reform. To keep the UK’s access to the single market, they and we must be prepared to make changes to some aspects of free movement.
As chair of parliament’s environmental audit committee, I am also worried a return to the bad old days when the UK was the “dirty man” of Europe.
The majority of laws protecting our wildlife, beaches, rivers and air quality come from EU legislation. During the referendum campaign my committee raised concerns that a Leave vote would spark a bonfire of environmental protections.
Last Wednesday in her evidence to the committee Therese Coffey, the Defra minister, offered no commitment that the government will keep these protections.
The chancellor’s August announcement on EU funding is not quite what it seems. Farm payments, known as CAP Pillar 1, are guaranteed until 2020.
However, funding for regional development schemes and agri-environment schemes for things like flood prevention, bog restoration and protecting endangered species is limited to projects approved before this year’s autumn statement.
There are no guarantees after that date. That means billions of pounds of environment and regeneration funding could be lost.
In their evidence, neither Coffey nor her colleague Robin Walker, the minister for the Department for Exiting the European Union, could say what the Treasury approval will rest on, nor what will happen after the autumn statement.
Farmers and disadvantaged rural communities who receive EU support deserve certainty about the future of their funding.
The fault lines in the government are exposed and multiplying. One thing’s for sure: May’s smoke and mirrors game on Brexit is wilting under scrutiny at home and abroad.
The uncertainty is toxic for our economy and our environment. “Brexit means Brexit” has been revealed as a soothing soundbite which signifies, so far, nothing.
This article was first published on The Times's Red Box on 16 September 2016, here.