UK's Brexit priorities and next steps
FT editor Lionel Barber and political commentator Janan Ganesh discuss what's ahead for the UK as the government sets out its priorities for Brexit and moves closer to triggering Article 50.
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Filip Fortuna.
LIONEL BARBER: Britain moved one step closer to Brexit this week. The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of triggering Article 50, which sets in motion the divorce proceedings for Britain and the European Union. Now Janan Ganesh, I don't quite get this. If you'd asked the MPs and the House of Commons a year ago, were they in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, they would have voted overwhelmingly to say, no, we're not. But this week, they voted the opposite way. Why?
JANAN GANESH: They were spooked by not only the referendum result, which went the opposite way to Parliament intended, the people voted to leave the European Union. But I also think they've been spooked by a lot of the media sentiment, since then in the conservative leaning press, which has really gone after any hint of the establishment trying to undo the referendum result.
LIONEL BARBER: Betrayal.
JANAN GANESH: Betrayal, lack of patriotism, talking Britain down, frustrating the will of the people, these have been the themes in recent months both aimed at MPs, but also people who've brought the legal case, which resulted in parliament having this vote in the first place. So you can understand it from an elected representatives point of view, it is very difficult to vote against the referendum result, even though it was reasonably close, given the media context and sentiment out.
LIONEL BARBER: So Ken Clarke, the old veteran, pro-European, was the only Tory MP to vote against the motion. But interesting, let's have a word about the labour party, which is irredeemably split over Europe too.
JANAN GANESH: Even more split than you would think, given the votes. A lot more labour MPs really wanted to vote against the triggering of Article 50 that ended up doing so. They think it's going to be materially damaging to this country, but a majority of labour seats votes it out. And so they're caught between the sentiments of their own voters, their own assessment of what's right for the country.
And the person trying to straddle the two together is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader. And there's no good fist to be made of this stuff. mean, he's come in for a lot of criticism for voting for the triggering of Article 50. I'm not sure what else he could have done.
LIONEL BARBER: OK, so the white paper, which was also published this week, Theresa May, drew it up. Is there a plan?
JANAN GANESH: There's a plan of sorts. I mean, there's a list of priorities. I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that. And the ultimate priority is to regain control over immigration, which is something that's dear to Theresa May's heart, as a former home secretary.
LIONEL BARBER: That's number one. It counts even more according to George Osborne, the former chancellor. It's more important than the economy it seems to be, is that right?
JANAN GANESH: Well, George Osborne made a very pointed criticism. He says that the economic interests of this country should be paramount, but that the prime minister values immigration more. I think he's correct.
I also think Theresa May has a point in that the referendum was a test of public opinion. And they were very strong-- there were very strong arguments made that leaving the European Union would be economically damaging. And yet, people still focused on the potential prize of regaining control of migration.
So really, I think she's fairly close to public opinion, when she makes that the number one line item in the negotiations. Beyond that, what a huge amount of detail. But she does hint that Britain could pay for access and something equivalent to single market terms with bits of our economy.
LIONEL BARBER: Yeah, I heard that George Osborne gave a little speech the other day, saying, essentially, this is like a divorce. They only things that are going to count are money and access.
JANAN GANESH: Yeah.
LIONEL BARBER: But let me ask you about Donald Trump's election. And we've had a turbulent near two weeks of the presidency. Has that changed the context for Brexit at all?
JANAN GANESH: I sense it's changed the atmospherics a little bit. And actually, last June, it looked like you could leave the European Union and enter a world of endless opportunity, potential allies, trading relationships elsewhere. The world looks a colder place now, a much harder US president to deal with.
I don't think it's going to change public opinion on its own. But you do wonder over the course of two years, during the negotiations, if they go badly, if the economy slows down, if people begin to feel the cost of economic uncertainty, and there's a US president who is not ideal for this country's interests, whether that might change public opinion closer to 2019.
LIONEL BARBER: Now let's just come back to Parliament to wrap up here. You've got a clear vote, overwhelming vote, in favour of triggering Article 50 and divorce. In two years time, we've got to have a deal of some sorts on the terms of separation and potentially, the new relationship with Britain and the European Union. What chance that you'll get the same kind of vote, or could things be completely different?
JANAN GANESH: The same vote in parliament, I think it all hinges on how bad the deal is. And I can absolutely imagine a case where the deal is plainly bad for this country, especially in economic terms, and the media are a bit less aggressive in two years, because the economy might be slowing down, or it's mid-term, and the government is unpopular. And then a few more MPs have the courage of their convictions and vote against. But everything hinges on the quality of the deal. And I'm not sure about you, but I'm not wildly optimistic about this government's chances of extracting a very good deal.
LIONEL BARBER: We're going to have some brutal negotiations ahead with a two year clock start winding down sometime next month. Janan Ganesh, thank you so much.
JANAN GANESH: Thank you.