Theresa May’s perfect storm
The Prime Minister is straining to get the last and most difficult part of the Brexit agreement in sellable shape just as her MPs’ patience seems strained, and mutiny stirs in her Cabinet. Mrs May is in a perfect storm.
Theresa May told the Commons this afternoon that the government is “95%” of the way to a deal. In rather the same way, perhaps, as a traveller on horseback could be 95% of the way from London to Dublin on arriving in Anglesey. The biggest logistical challenges remain.
The Prime Minister told the Commons that the UK was lining up two alternatives to the EU’s preferred backstop (Northern Ireland staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union after the rest of the UK leaves). The UK could go for a Temporary Customs Union which the EU which would negate the need for customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. Alternatively, the PM said, the UK could choose a time-limited extension to the Transition. The latter would have the advantage of having a definite end date.
The original scenario briefed by some that the extension to the transition was a contingency to allow time for the UK-wide Temporary Customs Arrangement has been downgraded and is now seen as a technical possibility.
Britain would voluntarily recognise Single Market goods standards to make sure there was no regulatory barrier to goods coming across the Irish Sea from Northern Ireland. Would that mean goods in England, Scotland and Wales were following Single Market rules for this period? That’s certainly what it sounds like.
Lots for Tory Brexiteers not to like. Lots to chew on in tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.
Senior figures in the government seem convinced that Graham Brady’s postbag is dangerously close to the 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of no confidence. Theresa May’s opponents are already lining up higher hurdles for any contest than the 50% + 1 hurdle her supporters speak of (that would mean 158 Tory MPs’ support). One opponent said the PM would need to keep opponents plus abstentions to 100 max. That would mean the PM needing 218 ballot papers expressing confidence.
The Cabinet meeting tomorrow is preceded by a Political Cabinet at which ministers will be briefed on the non-Brexit policies that flow from the PM’s Conference speech. You can’t help thinking some of their minds will be wandering to the next session. Ninety minutes have been set aside for the chat at full cabinet which includes a report back on the Brussels summit and updates on “no deal” planning.
Private secretaries are already said to be not expecting their Secretaries of State back promptly from a meeting bound to over-run.
Some ministers say they might prefer the idea of fixed term transition extension to the unknowns of a temporary customs arrangement but it is not a choice they relish. Theresa May has told Cabinet ministers that she is hoping for serious progress in the continuing talks in Brussels between the two negotiating teams.
Some nine days ago, Olly Robbins and his EU counterpart Sabine Weyand thought they had ironed out an agreement ready to be approved at the European Council summit last week. Eight days ago, Olly Robbins heard ministers weren’t happy. “It’s not tip top news,” he is said to have told Ms Weyand.
You could get a majority in the Commons for that – if nothing else.
Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter.