U.K.’s May Loads Team for EU Talks With Pro-Brexit Ministers

Updated on
  • Document shows the 12 people who will decide what Brexit means
  • Six EU-skeptics given key roles on May’s cabinet committee

The U.K.’s exit negotiations with the European Union will be controlled by a select group of 12 ministers that includes all of the most Euroskeptic members of Theresa May’s cabinet, a further sign that the premier may be planning a clean break with the EU.

The committee will “oversee the negotiations on the withdrawal from the European Union and formation of a new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union; and policy on international trade,” according to an unpublished U.K. government document obtained by Bloomberg.

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The group includes all six members of May’s cabinet who campaigned to leave the EU at the June referendum: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Brexit Secretary David Davis, International Development Secretary Priti Patel, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, and Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary.

The committee’s make-up risks adding to the concerns of businesses and investors that May is planning a so-called hard Brexit, in which the government prioritizes immigration controls ahead of access to trade goods and services freely in the EU’s single market.

Pound’s Decline

Global banks have warned that they will be forced to move some operations and staff out of London to other EU cities if May fails to secure a deal that allows them to continue to provide services across the remaining 27 nations. Uncertainty over the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU contributed to the pound’s plunge to a three-decade low against the dollar. Sterling was down 0.3 percent at $1.2216 as of 2:25 p.m. in London.

May’s cabinet contains 23 full members, only a quarter of whom backed Brexit. Yet half the ministers on the new 12-strong cabinet committee overseeing Brexit campaigned to leave the EU. A further six ministers on the European Union Exit and Trade Committee, as the group is formally known, sided with the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. They include Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green.

In the British government system, cabinet committees can take collective decisions that are binding across government. The cabinet is “the supreme decision-making body in government, dealing with the big issues of the day and the government’s overall strategy,” the British government website says. “Cabinet committees reduce the burden on cabinet by enabling collective decisions to be taken by a smaller group of ministers.”

Scotland’s Warning

There is no space for the attorney general, the government’s chief law officer. The ministers responsible for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will attend meetings “as required” but not as a matter of routine, according to the government document. 

The deputy leader of the pro-EU Scottish National Party, Angus Robertson, accused May of “treating Scotland with contempt” by leaving the Scotland minister off the panel. “It also seriously undermines Theresa May’s claim that Scotland will be fully involved in the Brexit negotiations,” he said in a statement. The semi-autonomous SNP government in Scotland will publish a bill next week to pave the way for a new independence referendum if it’s not satisfied with the Brexit deal.

Chuka Umunna, the main opposition Labour Party’s former business spokesman who’s a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said the U.K. “should not be forced into a hard Brexit by a private cabal of ministers.” In a statement, he urged the government “to be much more open about the aims and principles of their negotiation, both with the people and the House of Commons.”

‘In Charge’

Anna Soubry, a former Conservative business minister who campaigned to stay in the EU, said the composition of May’s committee ensures that the Brexit-supporting ministers will be forced to take responsibility for Britain’s future relationship with Europe. “They are in charge, and they have to deliver,” she said in an interview.

“The danger and the problem is that Theresa May, wrongly in my view, has put immigration at the front of everything,” Soubry said. “She has got to take the blinkers off and be prepared to say, actually that is not as important as securing our economy by membership of the single market.”

The head of the Liberal Democrat party, Tim Farron, said that May’s “line-up of hard Brexiteers is a further sign that the government wants to pull us out in the most aggressive way possible, abandoning the single market and crippling the economy.”

The full list of members of the European Union Exit and Trade Committee is as follows: Prime Minister Theresa May; Chancellor Philip Hammond; Home Secretary Amber Rudd; Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson; Brexit Secretary David Davis; International Trade Secretary Liam Fox; Business Secretary Greg Clark; Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green; Transport Secretary Chris Grayling; Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom; International Development Secretary Priti Patel; and Conservative Party chairman Patrick McLoughlin.

(Updates with reactions starting in ninth paragraph.)
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