3 Sep 2019

Does the government’s Brexit negotiating team still exist?

No. 10 has been pouring a lot of smelly stuff over Peter Foster’s revelations in the Telegraph  and on Twitter.

There isn’t a more respected commentator on the Brexit saga and I struggle to think of an occasion Peter Foster hasn’t been ahead of the pack and on the money.

His central accusation is that the negotiations in Brussels are a “sham” and Dominic Cummings has called them such. That’s denied by No. 10.

In meetings in No. 10 in recent days, Boris Johnson has been eye-balling potential Tory rebels and telling them that he thinks the chances of success in rewriting Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU are 50/50. In one case one MP reports the Prime Minister suggesting they were a bit better than 50/50.

One No. 10 source told me that the Prime Minister’s top aide Dominic Cummings puts the chances a lot lower than that. “15%?” I asked. I got a smirk and a signal it was lower than that.

But another phenomenon that feeds into this thesis is the state of our Brexit negotiating team. Does it actually exist still?

It was 90 strong at full strength. One who was part of it says: “It’s been disbanded.” Most of the people who were part of the negotiating team have moved elsewhere in Whitehall. David Frost’s twice weekly meetings in Brussels are “a farce,” the source said. I am told the EU negotiators left one recent meeting with the impression that Mr Frost’s greatest desire was that they didn’t go out and tell the media he’d come empty handed.

Another clue that supports the “sham” analysis is the timescale for the election that Boris Johnson is planning but says he doesn’t want. If he was re-elected on 14th October he would have three days to prep for the European Council renegotiation and the rewriting of an agreement section that was many months in the writing, not many more parliamentary days to pass it.

A lot of these points came up in the meeting that finished an hour ago between Boris Johnson and the rebels. A Downing Street source said that Philip Hammond was at the “irreconcilable”’end of the market in that meeting. Other rebels, the source suggested, might be won over yet. Boris Johnson accused the rebels of promoting a bill that would mean handing over power to Jeremy Corbyn or a junta of all opposition parties.

Yet again, the Prime Minister’s central argument was that the MPs needed to give him time to get a deal. They would, he argued, have plenty of parliamentary time at the other side of the October European Council to make a judgement on his efforts and stop him then if they had the votes. In a strange flip of circumstances one of the advisers who used to work with Theresa May recalled that Philip Hammond had signed up to a tight timetable for a deal getting through parliament before meaningful vote 3. The MPs clearly worry that the government would pull a fast one on them and whip that mini session in late October away from them by some wheeze.

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