The Labour Party held its annual conference (a rollicking, tense and at times exuberant affair) in Brighton this week. The message to the party faithful was simple: we are the government-in-waiting. The evergreen Jeremy Corbyn savaged the country's 'failed model of capitalism'
and offered up traditional Labour remedies. It's the first time in decades that these views have been seriously considered (beyond Liverpool, Manchester and university pubs).
Corbyn would see the railways and utilities renationalised. Taxes would be raised in order to provide free education and affordable housing. But Corbyn's brand of socialism-lite is no more a panacea to Britain's woes than neo-liberalism was. There are many issues on which Labour can wedge Theresa May's government, yet one issue stood out: Brexit. The Labour Party will campaign on the promise to retain 'unimpeded' access
to Europe's single market.
This will cause headaches at the upcoming Conservative Party summit. It will already be a strained affair: May's detractors continue to stoke discontent over her wavering commitment to a 'hard' Brexit. Many of them were galled by her admission that the Tories were 'not prepared'
for the snap election that she called. Boris Johnson is gearing up for another tilt at the top job. Just this week he earned censure from his colleagues
when he slipped the ministerial ranks to host a 'hard' Brexit event.
The biggest problem for May (beyond chronic party room instability) is that half a year has elapsed since her government triggered Article 50 and progress in the negotiations have been piecemeal at best. March 2019 always looked to be an unrealistic deadline; now it seems absurd. The government has proposed a two-year transition period after 2019 although this has been ridiculed by European leaders. May's speech in Florence last week was intended to kick-start the stalled talks, although one stumbling block isn't going anywhere: money.
David Davis and Michel Barnier (Britain and the EU's chief negotiators) have made some progress on the issue of citizens' rights. It's a complex problem that has caused consternation on both sides of the Channel. But until Britain can put forward a mutually agreeable payment
(the divorce bill) there will be little enthusiasm in Brussels to discuss the terms of trade in good faith. Barnier believes it could be months before this impasse
is overcome. These are months that May doesn't have to put forward a figure that will undoubtedly be politically toxic.
In London, leaders are losing sleep over the shape of a future relationship with the EU. In Paris, Emmanuel Macron is embodying the ethos of 'the ever-closer union'. In a controversial speech, the political novice described Europe as 'too slow, too weak, too ineffective' and offered a plan to overhaul the EU
. Macron's vision includes a shared budget, a joint military and a standardised taxation system. He also left the door open for Britain to rejoin the union at a later date, although it's doubtful that eurosceptics would be excited by an even more integrated European project.
Macron's speech has received mixed reviews. On one hand, Angela Merkel (fresh from a win at last weekend's German elections) offered cautious praise
for further integration. Her support for a Eurozone finance minister will no doubt be curbed by some within her prospective ruling coalition. Others, like the Danish and Czech leaders, dismissed Macron's plan outright. Meanwhile, the question of further integration is a purely academic one for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He's busy sending police into the streets
to quash this weekend's Catalonian independence vote.