9 Oct 2018

Cabinet eve of summit Brexit talks

There was little talk of Brexit at today’s Cabinet beyond the Prime Minister outlining the timetable ahead. But ministers were told they should diary a full Cabinet discussion on Brexit for a week today, the day before Theresa oMay attends the European Council in Brussels to discuss the emerging plans.

Mrs May will be hoping that next week’s Cabinet meeting can achieve what the Chequers meeting in July did, solidifying ministers around a position, but without the casualties suffered with resignations after that meeting.

The omens today were mixed.

Theresa May got heavily caveated support from the International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt for the Prime Minister’s position on the negotiations. There was also a letter to Tory MPs from the former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, telling them that Theresa May’s current plans for Brexit could sink the Tories at the next general election.

On the other hand, Mr Davis’ successor, Dominic Raab, gave a strong knock down to the idea that the government could hop across to a new strategy and pursue a Free Trade Agreement with the EU when he was asked about it in the Commons a short while ago.

Several ministers’ names have been linked to plans to “pivot” the Prime Minister to a Canada-style agreement after the October summit. One No. 10 source said: “the lady’s not for pivoting.”

There had been much discussion around Whitehall about where exactly Mr Raab’s pain threshold is on the emerging Chequers deal. Today the signs were that it might be higher than some thought. Not only did he slap down the FTA approach which is the main argument being deployed by ERG supporters and by his predecessor David Davis, he also, when asked to give the cut-off date for membership of some kind of Customs Union-style arrangement, said it should be “finite” and a pathway to a future deal. He did not give a date nor sound like a man who thought a date could necessarily be given.

Outside the Cabinet, the omens were mixed as everyone counts down to what could be a momentous vote on the deal in the Commons.

DUP sources say that their leader Arlene Foster was told by Michel Barnier in Brussels that there could be no change to the EU position that Northern Ireland should be subject to EU rules as part of the backstop arrangement and should be carved out of future UK Free Trade Deals with third countries.

In the Commons, the DUP Parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Dominic Raab that the government was in danger of repeating last December’s mistakes and cutting a deal that the DUP could not tolerate. Back then the DUP MPs withheld their support until significant redrafting had happened and some whips and No. 10 sources believe it is the closest the PM came to losing her job in a No. 10 career not short of perilous moments.

One DUP source said MPs felt that they might be being kept in the dark yet again about the exact terms of what is taking shape in a draft agreement. They meet almost daily with the Chief Whip, often with the Brexit Secretary and sometimes with other ministers. As last year, there is a concern that they have not been shown “text” and have been assured there is “no text” to show them yet.

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