ABHI Membership

ABHI Brexit Update: Interpretation and Perspective

I did not think about Brexit very much during the half term holiday last week, and I cannot say my life was any the poorer for it. This week I am trying not to think about any of the sobering ironies that it is throwing up. As I write, the French President and the UK Prime Minister are stood together at the site of the Battle of the Somme to mark the centenary of the Armistice.

Of course the meeting cannot pass without reference to Brexit, and the two will have a working lunch after the more somber formalities have been completed. Following a visit to Belgium, where a similar process took place, the meeting with President Macron represents, in reality, just one of her many personal meetings with EU leaders. The aim, of course, is to secure a deal she can take back to Westminster. But that, as I am increasingly bored of reading and writing about, is the easy bit. The problem will be getting the deal through the UK Parliament. And that is just the deal on withdrawal, let alone what our future partnership, or otherwise, might look like.

There was more trouble with the DUP again this week. It was down to interpretation and perspective. Now I understand this well. Most of you will tell me that Bristol is in the West Country, and you might be right. But what I can tell you is that when I am sat in my local pub in Newlyn on Sunday afternoon, I will be as close to Exeter as Bristol is to London. And, anyway, Bristol is only 90 miles from Birmingham, so I am not so sure. That might explain why a letter sent from the PM to DUP leader Arlene Foster, attempting to reassure her party that there was no way Northern Ireland will be treated differently from the rest of the UK, had exactly the opposite effect. Make your own mind up.

Falling out with the DUP is, of course, something the PM could do without. They are propping up the day-to-day running of her government through a so-called confidence and supply arrangement, so, in theory, and as I have described before, they can frustrate essential business getting done. Again as I have said before, getting a Brexit deal passed will be as much about how many MPs on both sides of the House are prepared to defy their Whips, and vote with or against the government. And it is tight. The government are working on the assumption that no fewer than 25 Tories will vote against them. On the opposite benches, rumours are that as many as 45 Labour MPs could side with the government. This has prompted Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell and his Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, to launch a charm offensive to persuade potential rebels that they have a gold plated opportunity to bring down the government. All that means is the 10-vote block held by the DUP is one Mrs. May would very much like in her handbag. And this takes us back to interpretation and perspective. If the government cannot get a deal agreed with the EU 27, what happens next? Brexiteers reckon that this will result in a far looser relationship with the EU that is outlined in the Chequers agreement. Remainers, however, are adamant that the political crisis that would ensue would force a second referendum and no Brexit. That just about sums up the ridiculous state of affairs we find ourselves in.

So, when does all this happen? Well, my nine year old daughter’s guess is as good as Robert Peston’s. The hacks are camped outside Downing Street waiting for signs that the “any day now” Cabinet meeting to approve a deal to take to Parliament is finally underway.

We had our own insights this week at the latest gathering of our EU Relationship Group, the standing, Ministerial led forum for engagement with our sector. Ministers were, as usual, upbeat. Robin Walker, our man in DExEU, whilst acknowledging challenges around the Irish backstop, reported otherwise solid progress on future arrangements, especially for services and transport.

Negotiators are back at work, and the EU stands ready to convene the necessary Summit. Walker did admit that the timing would be tight with the Withdrawal Bill and Future Partnerships framework appearing at same time, and the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill following immediately thereafter. The Minister also hinted that the future framework would contain more detail than many people might have expected at this stage.

The Borders team have been busy looking at 143 ports across the country to identify priorities in the event of no deal, with 10 areas being earmarked for increased capacity. It is a shame they did not tell the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, who got himself into trouble this week by admitting he had not realised the significance of the Dover – Calais trade route. Yes, really.

You will be aware that contingency plans to protect the supply of devices are underway. The letter from the Secretary of State that took most of you out of scope for self-assessment by NHS Trusts seems to have had the opposite effect. Please keep feeding back the scale and nature of those requests and we will keep the pressure on the DHSC to clarify their guidance to Trusts. The programme of work to assess vulnerability in the supply of goods direct to individual hospitals kicked off on Tuesday, and there is a roundtable next week. I report on that next time.

The frustration around the lack of communication of course continues, but Health Minister, Lord O’Shaughnessy, reassured us that medical products and components parts are the highest priority in government plans. He also raised the issue that, if it were to happen, no deal would actually constitute a spectrum of arrangements. Mutual recognition of regulatory standards, for example, would not necessarily be precluded by the failure to agree arrangements in other areas, especially as if this happened for medical devices, the pain would be felt most acutely in the EU27. The MHRA and our notifies bodies could yet prove to be one of the strongest bargaining chips we hold. Who would have thunk it?