Brexit talks damaged by cabinet splits which leave UK without a coherent strategy, says former top diplomat

Sir Simon Fraser warns the negotiations have not begun well – blaming the Government’s failure to state clearly its position

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 07 August 2017 08:46
Sir Simon Fraser: Brexit talks damaged by Cabinet splits which leave UK without a coherent strategy

Cabinet splits are damaging the Brexit talks by leaving Britain without a coherent strategy, a former head of the diplomatic service has warned.

Sir Simon Fraser said the negotiations had not begun well, blaming the Government’s failure to state clearly its position on crunch issues including money and Northern Ireland.

Transitional arrangements would be needed, because a deal agreeing Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is impossible before 2019, the former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary added.

Sir Simon, who now advises businesses on Brexit and foreign policy, said: “The negotiations have only just begun. I don’t think they have begun particularly promisingly, frankly, on the British side.

“We haven’t put forward a lot because, as we know, there are differences within the Cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for, and until those differences are further resolved, I think it’s very difficult for us to have a clear position.”

He added: “So far, we haven’t put much on the table apart from something on the status of nationals, so we are a bit absent from the formal negotiation.

“I think we need to demonstrate that we are ready to engage on the substance so that people can understand what is really at stake here and what the options are.”

The Government is expected to publish further “position papers” setting out its views on future customs arrangements and the Northern Irish border from next week.

Sir Simon, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, said he hoped that would demonstrate the UK negotiating team, led by Brexit Secretary David Davis, is “ready to engage”.

The comments come after Downing Street denied weekend reports that Britain is prepared to pay a so-called divorce bill of up to £36bn, to kick-start the exit talks.

The European Union has insisted it will not discuss future trade until “substantial progress” has been made on the financial settlement, EU citizens and Northern Ireland.

But a Number 10 official told The Independent that reports the Government is preparing to offer the EU payments of €10bn (£9bn) every year for up to three years after Brexit were “highly speculative and wrong”.

According to the claims, extra cash would be added to ongoing EU budget payments to make up the €40bn figure that the UK hopes will break the deadlock in talks.

Any settlement would take account of financial commitments and ongoing liabilities such as pensions, along with paying to remain in initiatives such as the Horizon 2020 research programme.

Conservative MP Peter Bone laid bare the difficulties the Government faces, by arguing MPs are unlikely to accept a Brexit fee of £36bn – suggesting Brussels should be paying the UK instead.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, another leading Tory Eurosceptic, said: “There is no logic to this figure, legally we owe nothing.”

The negotiations get under way again at the end of the month, but the EU is threatening to further stall any trade talks unless Britain gives way on the EU’s priorities.

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for foreign affairs, said: “While the clock is running down, key cabinet members are still squabbling over what type of Brexit to pursue.

"This shambolic approach is sharply increasing the risk of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, causing maximum damage to British jobs and families.”

But a Downing Street spokesman, reacting to Sir Simon’s comments, said: “We would disagree strongly. The last two months, we have had a constructive start to the negotiations. We have covered a significant amount of important ground.

"As the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said at the end of the last negotiating round, important progress has been made in understanding one another’s positions on key issues.”

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