What a fine mess Olly Robbins has got himself into. The British government’s Brexit negotiator was holding forth on Brexit in a bar in Brussels on Monday evening, and he managed to be overheard.
Angus Walker of ITV, returning to his hotel after filming, did the classic journalist thing when spotting someone interesting or semi-famous talking freely and audibly in public to colleagues. He bought himself a drink and listened intently while pretending not to.
Robbins made it clear that MPs will be faced in March with a simple choice – back May’s deal, presumably with a tweak or two, or accept a long extension of negotiations, delaying Brexit for ages.
Walker reports: “He was speaking in such a manner that you didn’t have to listen hard to hear him. But to be clear, I was hearing chunks of their conversation and not every single word. But during that conversation Olly Robbins said that, in his view, he expects the choice for MPs to be either backing May’s deal or extending talks with the EU. He expects MPs in March to be presented with backing a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay to Brexit, he told colleagues last night.”
Robbins is quoted as saying: “The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension… in the end they will probably just give us an extension.”
As Brexit cock-ups go it’s hardly the most colourful gaffe. It’s not as though Robbins has done a full Grayling. But it’s probably much more serious and impactful than that, because it undermines the Prime Minister’s pitch to MPs at a delicate moment.
Theresa May refuses to acknowledge the possibility of an extension of Article 50. She tells MPs she is determined to ensure that Britain leaves the EU on March 29th as planned. It is her deal or no deal. The briefing of late from her allies (that narrows it down) has sought to suggest that May is now prepared to go for no deal if she has to. Being prepared to consider no deal is contrary to all the public signals she has sent to date since her election disaster in 2017.
Yet here is her key negotiator, the architect of the deal May signed up to without testing the EU, saying that it is her deal or they (the EU) will just kick it down the road with an extension.
There will now be, at Westminster, a lot of shouting, mainly coming from the direction of the Brexiteers, saying that this is all terrible and an indictment of the civil service and all the rest. And yes, Robbins should not be strategising out loud in a Brussels bar. Even if he’s had a job from hell. Much of the criticism of the way he handled the talks and May is valid, but the pressure must have been intense. Still, when in Brussels in a bar at a sensitive moment, best button it.
It is also possible that the admission that the Brexit talks can simply be extended plays worst for the anti-no deal Cooper-Boles crowd. Their efforts in the Commons this month rest on the concept of the urgent need to “take no deal off the table” but here is someone who should know – Robbins – saying it is not on the table anyway. So why vote for Cooper-Boles? MPs might say there will be a delay – Robbins gave the game away – if it comes to it.
Others will praise Robbins, no doubt, for saying what they regard as the truth that an extension must happen.
It may even have a galvanising effect on swithering Tory Brexiteers, who are unsure whether to reluctantly back May’s deal or whether to stick with the ERG hard line. With May’s negotiator admitting an extension is looming, I wonder how many Tory Brexiteers will conclude that it is is more sensible to take whatever is on the table in the next few weeks (out, imperfectly) on March 29th.