13 Nov 2018

Brexit: the storm makes land

We have two documents in Downing Street being read tonight: the Withdrawal Agreement (500 pages or so) and the outline political declaration (some four pages or so). That tells you how much work is still to be done in working out the future relationship. The negotiators haven’t even been able to hand in half their homework. The EU always said it would be like this. Brexiteers sometimes suggested the whole thing – settling the past and mapping the future – could be set out and agreed by now.

There is talk that the plans laid out for the U.K. wide temporary customs arrangement could operate like a sliding scale. You want truly friction-less trade? You have to go for extra rules from Brussels which have a single market flavour. So if you don’t do that, the logic runs, and go for something a little more light touch, that leaves Northern Ireland more subject to checks with east/west trade across the Irish Sea. This might look to some Brexiteers like an EU plan to suck the U.K. into its magnetic and regulatory orbit. And it will look to the DUP, who are sounding very war-like this evening, like the kind of betrayal they were complaining about in the letter to Theresa May – which The Times got its hands on last week.

Ministers now have the challenge of making sense of the detail while not being allowed to take the documents away from No 10. If they choose to resign do they go big picture or hit on a detail? Or do they, as happened at Chequers, go along with sullenly only to walk out a couple of days later?

The storm that has been out at sea for months has started making land. Theresa May has decided this is as good as it gets in the time available. If she can bring the Cabinet onside without major casualties she will take it to the country and her MPs and the Commission will take it to the member states. There will be pained faces and arguments for changes to the text amongst the EU27. There will be much hotter discourse here and it started with a vengeance as the news flashed up of a “technical deal.” The ERG leadership is deploying lines about betrayal that must box those using them into a rebellion if we get to a Commons vote you would think. And if the DUPs rhetoric is a guide to its actions, inflicting defeat would be like pushing over a house of cards. But this is day one and the vote, if we get there, could be end of November or beginning of December under government plans.

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