6 Jun 2018

Tempers fraying over Brexit meeting summary

Theresa May has sent her Brexit sub-Committee ministers a summary of what they agreed at their last meeting last month. Number 10 has signalled that a version of this document (which is 4 pages long) is on its way to Brussels to tell them what Britain’s policy is on Brexit.

Problem is, a few of those Cabinet ministers don’t think this note does summarise the position agreed at Cabinet.

David Davis is believed to be very angry that the document implies Britain could be, post transition, in a purgatory of perpetual rule-taking with no time limit on the post-transition state (which under itself looks a lot like the transition).

This is technically all about the “backstop” position that the UK is advancing to replace the one the Irish put in to guarantee no hard border in Northern Ireland in the event of no other agreed way forward. But it has a significance way beyond any “safety net” plan because everyone thinks the safety net being worked on is the government policy.

Last night, Boris Johnson, who is said to be in the same place as David Davis on all this, addressed the weekly gathering of the ERG group of Tory Brexiteer MPs. Mr Johnson said the country must not end up out of The EU but obeying its rules. He repeatedly insisted that the MPs must support “the Prime Minister’s Mansion House Speech.” It was noted by MPs present that the formulation was very specific. It didn’t offer unqualified support to the PM and to some in the audience was a clear warning that the PM should stick to that speech (signed off by Brexiteers and Remainers alike in the Cabinet Committee before it was delivered) rather than anything that goes beyond it and isn’t signed off.

It sounds like tempers are fraying around Whitehall and some ministers are trying to stop what they think is an attempt to railroad them into never-ending membership of something a lot like the Customs Union and never-ending membership of something a lot like the Single Market for manufactured goods.

Some pro-Brexit ministers acknowledge that the EU27 can’t be expected to sign off on a time limit when they can’t know what they’d be accepting at the cut off point. They regret it, but acknowledge that it isn’t realistic. Some are not ready to concede that point.

When the EU and the UK disagreed on what the Brexit bill should be, the two sides dreamt up a clever wheeze in which the EU27 signed off the UK lower estimate as a perfectly credible number while insisting that the EU27 definition of what constitutes the final bill due would be paid whatever it turned out to be. Coming up with agreed wording is much more difficult when it’s about whether a treaty-bound backstop can also be unilaterally ended by one party… but that seems to be the challenge thrashing around Whitehall this lunchtime.

One footnote on David Davis: Two Sources suggested to me that he didn’t actually raise the time limit issue at the last S and N meeting and was thought to have resigned himself to not having it, albeit with a heavy heart. One source suggests he’s then become infuriated by the PM’s resistance to publishing a white paper on Brexit ahead of the June European Council and frustrated by what he sensed was half-heartedness in No 10 towards technological alternatives to the backstop Customs Union approach.

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