Oh dear. When the Chancellor is sent in to say that there has been a shift of gear and “real engagement” from the EU in these interminable Brexit negotiations, you know things are really bad. Everything’s fine, nothing has changed, nothing to see here, strong and stable, national interest, let’s be absolutely clear.
UK and EU negotiators are allegedly on the brink of agreeing a deal, but the nature of this deal seems to become less rather than more clear by the day, particularly on the shape of the final future relationship. The only agreement emerging from discussions is an indefinite ‘backstop’ arrangement that will see the UK effectively shackled to the customs union until such time as a more agreeable trade deal is thrashed out – which could be never.
While Theresa May has insisted that any such emergency provision – which is now looking like a proactive plan rather than a necessary fallback – must be “time limited”, it looks as though Michel Barnier won’t allow an actual limit to be declared, which means it’s not. With the prospect of perpetual membership of the customs union stretching indefinitely into the future – something the government is supposed to have ruled out – the UK could be heading for Brexit in name only.
Leading Brexiteers in the Cabinet are deeply unhappy about the situation after a Cabinet briefing yesterday, and the Prime Minister may soon find herself mired in a series of high-profile resignations if senior ministers feel she is stretching the principle of Brexit too far. Leader of the Commons Andrew Leadsom, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt – all Brexiteers – are the ones to watch. The latter has publicly refused to back the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan and will not guarantee that she will vote with the government when the final deal comes before Parliament.
A stronger prime minister with a confident majority would be exercising much tighter discipline but May must know that she lacks the political capital to pull off any draconian sackings – such a tactic would most probably backfire, triggering a mass Brexiteer walkout.
Meanwhile, the DUP is horrified by suggestions that Northern Ireland should remain entirely in the Single Market and customs union while the rest of the UK stays more loosely tied to EU rules. DUP leader Arlene Foster has emphasised the primary objection to allowing any divergence is long-term rather than short-term; when Britain starts striking trade deals of its own with third parties, Northern Ireland would be left behind, tied to the EU’s customs territory rather than Britain’s. Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesmen, said in the Telegraph this morning:
“If the Government decides in the face of EU belligerence to cut and run and leave part of the UK languishing in the stifling embrace of the EU, then that would be totally unacceptable to us and many others in the House of Commons.”
With the DUP threatening not only to vote down the deal but also to throw out the Budget, the May government may be entering administration meltdown in the coming weeks. Even if May survives the negotiations with her Cabinet intact, she then faces the showdown of the Bill on the deal. As the Spectator’s James Forsyth points out, without the DUP, even if the whips keep the Tory rebellion down to an optimistic 15, Theresa May would still need 25 Labour MPs to defy their own whip and back the deal. The odds against this ramshackle government clearing each individual hurdle ahead are low enough; when you multiply them together May would face better chances buying a lottery ticket.