20 Nov 2018

Brexit: Cabinet meetings, tweaks to the text and a Brussels day trip

Some Cabinet ministers say this morning’s gathering was a more low-key affair than last week’s. One around the table said “it was like the steam had gone out of it.” Chris Grayling spoke up, challenging the idea that Theresa May’s deal could ever get through the Commons. But others, one source said, were rather low-key.

The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, who told the last Cabinet meeting that he thought the DUP MPs would abstain in the vote on the deal allowing the government to win, this week “spoke rather more in generalities.”

Ministers were allowed to read the latest update on the negotiations before the meeting, though some didn’t seem aware of this facility and had little time to do that. They weren’t shown  the latest version of the Political Declaration that will accompany the Withdrawal Agreement. But one minister said the most that could be expected there was an attempt to please pro-Brexit ministers with hints in the text that alternative “arrangements” that might forestall the need for a backstop could include some of their own pet hopes like technical solutions to the Irish border issue.

One of the provocations which Dominic Raab felt compelled him to resign from the government was the phrase promising “ambitious customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory.” It’s not clear that phrase is being knocked out of the declaration in currently redrafting but one source who’d seen the latest draft indicated much of the text about level playing fields and trade in goods and services was “live” or “contested.”

Theresa May will tomorrow go to Brussels to sit across the table from Jean-Claude Juncker.  Throughout the general election of 2017, Mrs May made much of how the British people would be voting to send her or Jeremy Corbyn to the negotiating table. That’s not actually how it has worked out. The EU27 have refused to negotiate 27/1 with Mrs May and she gets ejected from meetings when they want to talk about her Brexit plans.

Tomorrow afternoon’s discussions in the European Commission HQ will not be the make or break moment with lots of stubby pencils and drafts passing from one side of the table to the other. The European Council on Sunday will be even less a negotiating moment.

But Theresa May will be hoping both of them add to a narrative her team feel is gaining traction that she is, as one put it, “the grown up in the room” while many (often male) MPs seem to be playing games of advantage. Her team believe private polling suggests there’s a surge of support for her personally. Converting that into MPs votes is the immediate challenge. Some sources suggest the working notion for the vote is now the second week of December.

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