16 Oct 2018

Cabinet’s ‘frank’ Brexit talks

Virtually everyone in Cabinet spoke about the stalled Brexit deal today, which helps to explain the long duration. At the heart of much of the discussion, “exhaustively aired” according to one who was in the room, was the issue of the UK-wide Customs Union backstop.

Minister after minister conveyed the need to have either a break clause or an end date. “Nobody went over the top,” one minister said, but it was “frank.” I understand many of them expressed the need for this additional requirement with an indirect line of attack. Instead of threatening their own resignation if the backstop wasn’t somehow time-limited they insisted that the PM wouldn’t be able to get it past their pro-Brexit colleagues unless it had some clear ending.

The PM has been a long time round the block with this issue. It was the subject of an earlier, abortive David Davis resignation threat which ended with the government putting in a projected date for ending the Customs Union backstop at the end of 2021. No fixed date could be put in because no such date would be accepted by the EU.

Now the PM is in the horrible position of colleagues demanding an additional requirement to a fundamental policy that itself has not been nailed down in talks with the EU27. The UK-wide Customs Union sits in “airy aspirational” language, according to one minister, in the draft declaration. The EU’s original Northern Ireland backstop sits, carved in granite, in the draft Article 50 treaty text.

Ministers are unhappy with something the Prime Minister hasn’t even yet secured after months of negotiations.

What ministers didn’t go into at Cabinet, I am told, is a Plan B. That, though, is where much pro-Brexit conversation goes outside the Cabinet room. And some Tory MPs who have said in the past that they are willing to support Chequers or a variation on it report tearoom conversations where MPs say that the Party needs to start working on narratives to defend “no deal” as the possibility of such an outcome increases. One Tory MP said: “we need a narrative… if we crash we need to be able to say we stood our ground, died for a principle, didn’t just fall into this.” That, the MP said, would mean the Tory Party would at least hold on to pro-Brexit voters even though he accepted it could mean haemorrhaging pro-Remain ones.

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