BBC éminence grise Andrew Neil struggled to get his two guest to give even basic answers on the Daily Politics yesterday. After repeated dodges on their Brexit positions by the Conservatives’ Greg Hands and Labour’s Rachael Maskell he was not able to hide his frustration. Despite Brexit being the most talked about political issue in the UK for over two years, neither the International Trade minister nor the Shadow DEFRA Secretary could explain what their party thinks the UK negotiating position with the EU should be.
Andrew Neil: “Do you have any idea what you are talking about”
“I will try for a fourth time – what is the British government’s negotiating position?” asks @afneil
“Not for me today to pre-empt a negotiation that has not started” @GregHands
— BBC Daily Politics and Sunday Politics (@daily_politics) 7 February 2018
Holding a copy of the EU negotiating position – “The Position Paper on the Transitional Arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement” – Andrew Neil repeatedly asked his guests what the corresponding position of the UK government or the loyal opposition was.
Speaking to Greg Hands he said, “I am asking a simple question on behalf of the British voter – what is our side?”
Repeatedly, Greg Hands dodged the question. “It’s not for me to preempt the negotiations before they’ve started,” he insisted.
Keeping quiet about its negotiating position has been British policy for 18 months now, but with only a few months to go before an agreement needs to be reached, the excuses are wearing thin.
Andrew Neil’s frustration clearly showed. Speaking to Hands he asked, “Do you know what you are talking about? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?”
“You haven’t said anything clearly”
Although less of an immediate national interest, no clear position on Brexit negotiations was available from Labour’s Racheal Maskell either. The only statement she was willing to make was that “everything is on the table.”
“‘Everything is on the table’ is just a phrase,” Neil countered. When Maskell then pointed at Greg Hands and began to criticize his position Neil intervened.
“No, no, don’t attack the government, I’ve done enough of that,” he told her. “You can’t even answer my questions. You can’t get out of answering my questions by attacking the government.”
The car-crash double-interview ends with Andrew Neil looking into the camera and after a long, exasperated pause saying, “That was remarkably unproductive, even by our standards.”
Neil’s frustrations certainly reflects that of other political journalists, and increasingly the British public at large.
Desperately split by competing and contradictory visions of Brexit, the Tory leadership has refused to take firm stands on any of the major Brexit issues. Or rather, they have taken a firm stand that everyone can have whatever they want from Brexit with no consequences – a position that is Brussels is growing increasingly irritated with. With the sense of policy drift growing daily, Greg Hands was put forward to be a reassuring presence. He failed.
Labour have similar splits in their own ranks, but without the discipline of actual power to force a decision. Content to watch their opponents tear themselves in pieces, the possibly even more serious rift between the different Labour camps has been allowed to simmer quietly on the back burner without causing any real damage. As Prime Minister Theresa May grows weaker, and the prospect of another general election looms closer, this position will become untenable.
With the Liberal Democrats being the only major national party with a coherent Brexit policy (but too small a contingent in the Commons to do much more than ask uncomfortable questions), the two larger parties are each letting each other off the hook with their own lack of decisiveness. How much longer can it last?