10 Oct 2018

Theresa May summons Ministers for special Brexit meeting

Around 4pm this afternoon, some Cabinet ministers’ emails pinged with an invitation to No. 10 tomorrow. A meeting, 5pm, 1 hour long. The invitees are mostly the same people who sat on the S and N (strategy and negotiation) sub-committee which last met in June this year. It was charged with shaping strategy. As recently as the last couple of weeks, sources at the centre of the government operation thought this committee had been “disbanded.” Some former members of the committee were beginning to wonder the same.

Private Secretaries were asked to get on the grapevine and find out what it might be about. But most participants seem to have guessed.

Olly Robbins and his negotiating team in Brussels have been celebrating significant progress in the talks about the exit terms of Brexit, the Article 50 negotiations, and tomorrow the PM will try to get political backing for where they have got to.

At least two of those ministers attending sound like they are comprehensively in the dark about what that will be (no papers are expected to be circulated ahead of the meeting). One key element will be whether the whole of the UK is to continue in something that will in effect be the Customs Union (no doubt rebranded to spare blushes and red lines). That situation would continue until such time as the EU signed off on an alternative. Boris Johnson has been tweeting disobliging views on all that this afternoon as part of a drumbeat of protest from Tory MPs opposed to the deal taking shape.

The other key element is what checks would happen on goods that are traded between Britain and Northern Ireland. The DUP want nothing that makes Northern Ireland in any way a separate entity for customs or regulations purposes from the rest of the UK. Their MPs have been briefing menacing messages of intent and pre-emptively attacking a potential betrayal of the union by the government. Some in the government say they are fully aware of the DUP’s “blood red lines” and are not about to fall into the trap of crossing them. The DUP say they still haven’t seen text and are ready to vote the deal down if and when it comes to the Commons.

But in some ways the most instructive line that emerged in today’s pre-deal swirls was in the speech of Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator. He said, amongst other things, that there were plans to start no fewer than 10 negotiating strands in talks between the UK and the EU after Brexit happens next Spring. That negotiating plan is where the real work will be done devising a new relationship between the UK and the EU. The talks taking place in recent months have failed to come up with the answer to where that relationship will go. Many said they never would. Some, particularly Brexiteers, thought and hoped they would.

Many Brexiteers fear the way the exit has been negotiated, keeping the UK in the Customs Union (in deed though probably not in name), will skew that future relationship and act like an anchor that holds  the UK close to the EU institutions, preventing the dreamed of day when the UK could go its own way.

But in principle those ten negotiating strands will decide what the future relationship is and could mean the UK sails off to the Free Trade Agreement type relationship or stays closer to EU laws and regulations.

There will be a declaration on the future relationship which will give some headings and guidance to future negotiators but it doesn’t look like it will nail much down. Mrs May needs it to hold open the promise of a more distant relationship in the future to win over her dissident backbenchers.

Michel Barnier has told  one visitor to Brussels that there will be a window after Brexit during which a new Prime Minister could take things in a different direction. That window stays open for a bit but not forever. Once new trade relationship treaty negotiations are advanced it probably closes. But the first treaties out of the pack for signing could be ones like that planned on security arrangements. The talks have been laborious, one phase is coming to a close, but they will go on and on.

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