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Brexit: Theresa May ‘must appoint deputy’ to oversee next stage to avoid blunders of first phase

Government risks ‘stumbling’ into future trade talks with EU ‘without a plan’ – even if divorce deal is eventually approved by MPs

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 15 April 2019 18:55 BST
'We must press on at pace' Theresa May says parties must work together to overcome 'unique situation' of Brexit deadlock

Theresa May must appoint a powerful “deputy” with agreed aims for the next stage of the Brexit negotiations to avoid the blunders of the first phase, a major study says.

The government is in danger of “stumbling” into future trade talks with the EU “without a plan”, it warns – even if the divorce deal is eventually approved by the Commons.

The warning comes as compromise talks between the government and Labour stalled, casting fresh doubt on the prime minister’s hopes of passing her deal and avoiding a long Brexit delay.

Unless the agreement is ratified by 22 May, the UK will have to take part in next month’s European parliament elections – threatening the Conservatives with huge losses.

Now the Institute for Government (IFG) has highlighted the risk of repeating the mistakes that have led to the Brexit stalemate when the “much tougher” trade talks are eventually reached.

In particular, the think tank urges Ms May – or “whoever is prime minister” – to reach cabinet agreement early on the objectives for the future relationship with the EU, while avoiding “absolute red lines”.

The cabinet failed to even discuss its aims for the “end state” deal with the EU for the first year or more of the May premiership, undermining the Brussels talks, the IFG says.

The report recommends the appointment of a “deputy, based in the cabinet office, to oversee the day-to-day negotiations”, supported by all big-hitting departments.

The government should also “engage parliament and the devolved administrations early and consistently”, to avoid a further mistake of the first phase.

“Negotiations on our future relationship with the EU will be much more complex than the divorce,” said Tim Durrant, the lead author of the report.

“The time available for negotiations is short and the government must not waste time by failing to prepare.”

Jill Rutter, the institute’s programme director, said Ms May had created “completely foreseeable problems for the exit negotiations” by setting up new, separate departments in 2016.

The errors were “compounded by the inability of the cabinet to reach an agreed position on the key future economic relationship”.

“Whoever is prime minister for the second phase of the negotiations needs to ensure that they avoid similar mistakes next time round,” Ms Rutter added.

Meanwhile, in fresh evidence that the cross-party talks are in trouble, Downing Street was unable to confirm that any face-to-face meetings would take place this week.

Three working groups have been set up to discuss stumbling blocks – covering worker and consumer rights, environmental protections and security – but there are no firm dates for meetings.

Strikingly, there is no working group for the biggest controversy, Labour’s demand for a customs union, creating widespread scepticism that any agreement is possible.

Asked when the two parties would next sit down together, the prime minister’s spokesperson said only that the public could “expect those conversations to be taking place”.

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