What happened this week?
Last Tuesday, after an unusually quiet week in the world of Brexit, the Cabinet met for further discussions about the UK’s negotiating position.
Although the mood music after the meeting wasn’t entirely positive, there were upbeat messages about a withdrawal agreement being ‘95% done’ and suggestions that the Cabinet might be able to meet again before the end of the week to sign off a deal.
The main sticking point continued to be the Irish backstop, and specifically the UK’s right to leave any arrangement unilaterally rather than needing the EU’s agreement. Despite the initial show of unity, mild disagreements immediately began to surface. These included an argument about whether Parliament (or even cabinet ministers) would be allowed to see the government’s legal advice on the proposed Irish backstop arrangements, and disquiet about the role of EU institutions in adjudicating on various future disputes.
Meanwhile, negotiations between officials continued in ‘the tunnel’ – that is to say largely in secret, with no public briefing. Off the record EU officials expressed concern that the British government is still negotiating with itself, or in one pithy phrase that there are still ‘test balloons going up over the Thames to see how they will land’.
End of the week
As the week came to an end with no cabinet meeting in the diary, any light at the end of the tunnel began to recede and various test balloons were shot down as Theresa May’s opponents competed to see who could oppose her proposals most vociferously. According to reports, on one side, the ERG group of Conservative backbenchers together with the DUP suggested that they would oppose the deal the Prime Minister reached even if their concerns about the Irish backstop were addressed.
At the other end of the scale, Jo Johnson (brother of Boris Johnson) resigned as a government minister and called for a further referendum on the basis of leaving the EU, with rumours of several more resignations imminent. And another member of the cabinet insisted she wouldn’t resign, but only because, it seems, she wished to stay in the cabinet in order to oppose the Prime minister’s customs union plans. Needless to say, a new date for a meeting to agree a deal has not been set.
Although it’s easy to see this as Brexit-as-usual, each of these interventions shows a further polarisation of positions and limits Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre even more. A call for a new referendum from the Conservative side is a significant development and, in the absence of any plausible route to a deal, it looks a little more likely that there may be some combination of an extension to the Article 50 time period and a further referendum.
That said, each week is an extremely long time in politics at the moment so the picture could change completely by next weekend…
Watch this space….