Boris Johnson prepares for PMQs. Flickr/Number 10
This is the latest evening briefing for Reaction subscribers. Become a subscriber here.
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen were due to speak at 7pm tonight to discuss the latest on Brexit talks. This phone call is most likely to be a stock-take, we are told, rather than a breakthrough moment. Yet, whisper it quietly, we may have a Brexit deal by next week, if not earlier. All the signals emanating from both Brussels and London suggest the two negotiating teams are moving towards each other at pace, with minor breakthroughs occurring in several areas.
For instance, this morning, it was leaked that agreement had been reached on procurement, with both sides committing to “equal treatment” on bidding for public sector contracts from British and European firms. Those who saw Brexit as an opportunity to “Buy British” will be disappointed. But they shouldn’t be. Most economic analysts believe it’s a coup for the British business, given that the EU’s public procurement market is much, much bigger than the UK’s.
Speaking to a conference at the European Parliament today, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, who is not usually one for rosy language, sounded remarkably optimistic. “Good progress,” he said, adding that a deal was “possible” by as early as tomorrow. Few people expect this to be the case, however. If there are no hitches – a very big if – it’s more likely that a deal will be finalised over the weekend.
As has been reported in the tabloids, a top secret prime ministerial trip that was pencilled in for Friday/Saturday has been cancelled at the last minute. Reaction has been told this would have been a Christmas visit to a military base. Downing Street claims the cancellation is down to logistical issues, but it all seems a bit too convenient.
Another reason for a deal this weekend? The European Parliament is kicking up a fuss over the lack of time it has had to scrutinise the legal text. Senior MEPs said today that they will not be able to ratify any UK-EU treaty before the end of the transition unless the deal is concluded by Sunday.
Albeit, we probably shouldn’t take self-aggrandising MEPs too seriously. If push comes to shove, the European Parliament would be cudgelled into doing what the Commission wants it to do. But this pressure does make an imminent breakthrough ever more important.
Everything should be much clearer soon.
3 Tiers for everyone
Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire will all move into Tier 3 restrictions from Saturday, as will parts of Surrey, East Essex, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. By my rough calculations, this will mean that almost 70 per cent of England’s population is now living under Tier 3 restrictions, a remarkable figure.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, issued a sobering analysis of the escalating crisis across the country. “In the south-east of England, cases are up 46 per cent in the last week, and hospital admissions are up by more than a third. In the east of England, cases are up two-thirds in the last week, and hospital admissions are up by nearly half,” he said.
More worrying is the fact that Tier 3 does not appear to be doing the trick, as cases – and more importantly the number of people being hospitalised – is rising quite dramatically in areas already under the most severe restrictions. This suggests that we are hurtling towards a situation where the government will implement either a Tier 4 or another national lockdown. We are back to square one.
For a sense of the trajectory we are on, remember that when Tory MPs voted for these measures a couple of weeks ago, they were quietly assured by Downing Street that today’s review would see swathes of England downgraded to Tier 1.
Rishi dishes one last time
Rishi Sunak has extended the furlough scheme once again, from March to April 2021, in a final splash of cash before the Treasury’s focus turns to saving money. The Chancellor has also confirmed the next Budget will take place on 3 March.
If we are to take Sunak’s public comments seriously, April really will be the end of the road for large Covid stimulus spending. In an interview published today in The Spectator, Sunak said: “It is clearly not sustainable to borrow at these levels. I don’t think morally, economically or politically it would be right.”
He added: “If we [Tories] think borrowing is the answer to everything, that debt rising is fine, then there’s not much difference between us and the Labour Party. I worry about what that means for us politically down the line.”
To cheer you up, the Chancellor also made clear that he expects most if not all Covid restrictions to be lifted as soon as the first phase of vaccination – targeting the most vulnerable groups – is over. He expects the Oxford vaccine, which may be approved in the coming days, to be “a significant swing factor in the timeline.”
Incidentally, the government believes it will have completed phase one vaccinations by March/April – right on time for Sunak’s budget and the end of furlough.
Not long to go now.
Mutaz Ahmed, Politics Reporter