21 Jun 2018

Theresa May’s testing weeks

Leo Varadkar has been hosting the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Dublin, giving the UK a taster of the sort of lines it is going to hear next week at the European Council meeting in Brussels.

“There isn’t much time left,” the Taoiseach said. “There is an urgent need to make progress.” Mr Juncker echoed that but in muted, diplomatic language. Expect more of the same from both of them next week. The EU27 are hoping to convey their intense concern about how Britain hasn’t agreed a position on the future relationship yet without adding to the air of crisis already engulfing the gathering.

Some leaders were alarmed by the image of the fractured West conveyed by the G7 summit, and migration issues have charged up the agenda with the extremist policies of the new Italian Interior Minister and the threat to topple the German government.

So they have conveyed the message privately to the government that time is truly running out for the negotiations and, the week after the European Council, the PM will convene Cabinet colleagues to try to thrash out government policy ready for a White Paper to be published soon after (possibly 9th July, though nothing is set in stone yet).

No. 10 has been putting off this day for good reason. We may all soon find out why.

Whitehall sources say the Prime Minister is acutely aware that she is trying to get Brexiteer ministers to a place they don’t want to go. There could be one or more Cabinet resignations. The calculation has been made that the risks of Cabinet resignations are now less than the dangers of running out of negotiating time.

Mrs May had a mighty struggle squeezing agreement on the Customs Union element of the backstop out of Cabinet colleagues. Now she must try to get colleagues to sign up to the Single Market/regulation elements of the package. As Charles Grant at the Centre for European Reform has written, this big ask from her pro-Brexit colleagues will not necessarily be followed by an open-armed welcome from the EU27.

Downing Street is hoping that the EU27 attitude will soften and negotiators will engage more with the UK position when it has itself solidified. Downing Street is also hoping that the EU will not push for full-blown Freedom of Movement as the quid pro quo for the UK seeking to stay in something a lot like the Single Market for manufactured goods. But some Brexiteers are very sceptical of that. They think that is exactly what the EU will ask for and the government would then be embarked on dressing up some minor controls or registration requirements as more than they truly are.

The resignation of Trade Minister Greg Hands, Chelsea and Fulham MP, ahead of the Heathrow 3rd runway vote on Monday, throws the spotlight on one of the most talked about potential government Brexit resignation. Ministers and officials have been speculating whether the Cabinet ministers’ crunch meeting will see Boris Johnson resign from the Cabinet. Friends have said this other celebrated Heathrow refusenik will not be resigning over Heathrow.  Would other ministers follow him? Is David Davis ready to deliver on the threat briefed out last week if things don’t go his way? Is one Cabinet departure survivable? Are two departures terminal?

Ministers will be hoping (though not sure) that the folding of the Dominic Grieve rebel forces yesterday signals they don’t have as much to worry about in the July vote on the Customs Union (an amendment to the Trade Bill). But even if they’re right, they’ve got no shortage of other big challenges.

One government source said the Prime Minister was facing her toughest few weeks and must be longing for the recess like someone darting to a bus shelter in a downpour.


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