The furore surrounding the Brexit divorce bill is hotting up. The weekend’s papers saw speculation that Britain would cough up £36bn as part of a settlement package for its departure from the EU. Nonsense, says Downing Street, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman saying this morning: ‘I don’t recognise the figure’. It’s not only the government hitting back; Tory eurosceptics are also turning up the volume. Yet while the government is eager to talk down the size of the bill, the criticism coming from the backbenches is less nuanced. Instead of quibbling over the amount, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood dismiss the bill out of hand. Rees-Mogg wrote on Twitter: ‘There is no logic to this figure. Legally we owe nothing’. Redwood had a similar take on LBC: ‘There is absolutely no legal need or political need to offer them anything at all, full stop’, he said. Peter Bone also added his voice to the debate, saying that it would be ‘totally bizarre to give the EU any money, let alone £36bn, given that over the years that we have been in the EU or its predecessor we have given them, net, over £200bn’.
It might be easy to ignore the usual suspects but these rumblings of discontent give the government a taste of the trouble that is to come. So far, ministers’ strategy for dealing with the Brexit bill has been simple: avoid naming a price at all costs. This has given the likes of Boris Johnson the freedom to placate the eurosceptics, telling the EU it can ‘go whistle’ for its cash while avoiding anything difficult like specifics. Theresa May has done the same: in the days before the general election, the PM suggested that ‘money paid in the past’ must be counted against any demand coming from the continent. But she avoided the tricky detail. These remarks will have warmed the hearts of the Brexit bunch, but the government won’t be able to avoid saying what it is prepared to pay for much longer.
By the end of August, the EU is expecting answers from the UK on how the payment will be calculated. Without this progress, Brussels is likely to play hard ball and refuse to allow the next stage of Brexit talks to proceed. Given that some Tory MPs will be angry with any bill above £0, we should brace ourselves for the coming row over the divorce bill. Theresa May should enjoy her holiday while it lasts.