THERE will be no emergency Cabinet meeting this weekend. Theresa May still doesn’t have a deal to put to her ministers.
But with the clock ticking — on Tuesday the Cabinet was meant to decide on whether to book ferry space to bring in essential supplies in the event of no deal — there is an intense scramble on to get a deal.
As one government source tells me: “If there’s no November Council, then no deal goes into overdrive.”
With Mrs May determined to avoid no deal, there probably will be some kind of agreement shortly. But it will be flawed –– and Mrs May should say so.
I admit this sounds odd: Why would a Prime Minister admit that a deal they have negotiated isn’t great?
But if Mrs May tries to say that this agreement is perfect, and that there is no risk of any part of the UK getting stuck in the backstop — which would leave it in an EU customs union but with no say over the trade deals the EU is doing — then she will easily be disproved.
Mrs May should take a leaf out of the book of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who as a hugely successful trial lawyer knows a fair bit about persuading people of his case.
He told Cabinet on Tuesday that when it came to quitting the backstop “a unilateral right would give the UK greater scope to establish its case, as the other side would have to prove the contrary”.
But he went on to acknowledge that negotiating a unilateral right to get out of the backstop was highly unlikely in the time available and a mutual review mechanism could be made to work.
Cox’s essential argument is about managing risk. Every option on Brexit now carries with it risk.
The challenge is to work out how to best manage these risks. The risk with accepting a legally binding backstop in the withdrawal agreement is that the UK ends up being unable to get out of it cleanly.
It would be dire if the UK ended up leaving the EU in a way that tied it to the EU for ever.
But set against this must be the risk of no deal, and the disruption that would cause. To make matters worse, the Government has done absurdly little to mitigate no deal.
The reason that even Cabinet ministers who loathe where the negotiations are heading do not want to go for no deal is they know how unprepared the country is for it.
At the same time, there is a risk that if there is no deal, Parliament would either insist on a second referendum — that would harden divisions and toxify our politics — or cancel the process altogether, creating a dangerous democratic deficit.
Frankly, the argument that Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement is less bad than the alternatives will be pretty much the only thing going for it.
It will be hard for her to make this argument as so many of the deal’s problems are self-inflicted.
She triggered Article 50 without knowing what the UK wanted; she has wasted much of the past 18 months in a negotiation with her own Cabinet; the failure to plan properly for no deal has weakened the Government’s negotiating position.
Even the Parliamentary arithmetic has been made worse by Mrs May. If she hadn’t called that election, there would be a Tory majority and she wouldn’t be so reliant on the DUP.
But it is the argument that her deal is less bad than the alternatives that is keeping the Cabinet on board and it is her best — and, possibly, only — way of getting the House of Commons to vote for such a flawed agreement.
- James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.
Will there be a deal at the double?
For she will still have to get this withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons.
With the DUP unhappy and 20 Tory Brexit ultras expected to vote against the deal, as well as Jo Johnson and other Tories who want another referendum, it will be extremely tough to get it over the line.
“I can’t quite see where the majority comes from,” admits one Cabinet minister.
But there is growing talk that the way to get the deal through might be to bring it back a second time, with the markets – which expect a deal – freaking out.
As this Secretary of State says: “Do you get it through the first time? Maybe not.
“Do you get it through the second time? That’ll be much more interesting.”
Another blow to see Jo go
JO JOHNSON has never been a Theresa May fan.
He did little to hide his irritation at being moved from his job as universities minister because of his opposition to Mrs May’s plan to tinker with tuition fees.
But his resignation is a blow to the PM – and not just because of his attack on her for “a failure of British statecraft not seen since the Suez crisis”.
His departure will put more pressure on those ministerial colleagues who privately share his view that a second referendum is needed, to go.
With both Johnsons voting against the withdrawal agreement, it will become even harder to get it through the Commons.
No Cabinet rush for the (Br)exit
SO will any of the Cabinet resign over Theresa May’s Brexit plan? At the moment, ministers believe not.
One of those who spoke against the May approach at Cabinet tells me the mood of the meeting was “resigned rather than resigning”.
Another predicts critics of what Mrs May is doing “will make their point, then retreat”.
This is not to say people are happy. Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, warned that voters wanted a “definitive end point to Brexit” and if they didn’t get it, that risked “feeding a narrative of betrayal, fuelling Ukip”.
In private, ministers rail against Mrs May and the way she is handling the negotiations. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been heard to complain that the UK is making it far too obvious it is in a desperate hurry to get a deal.
It is certainly true that by advertising its need for a quick agreement, the UK is almost inviting the EU to ask for more.
Tellingly, there is renewed – and increasing – talk among ministers of having a new leader in place to do the next set of negotiations.
There is little love for the backstop. And interestingly, Chancellor Philip Hammond argued in Cabinet this week it would be better to extend the transition than trigger the backstop.
He argued that the backstop could do damage to supply chains and said “it could be better to extend the implementation period than have a bad backstop”.
A problem with extending the implementation period is that it would mean free movement would continue – and the UK would still be sending huge amounts of money to Brussels every year.
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POLITICS will pause tomorrow for Remembrance Sunday.
The commemorations will serve not just as a reminder of the sacrifices made for our freedom, but also of the fact that the problems – and challenges – of today pale in compar- ison to those of the past.