SUNDAY night was when a deal on the Irish backstop was meant to be done.
The idea was that the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab would then head out to Brussels on Monday to settle things with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
On Tuesday, it would be put to Cabinet and then Theresa May would head to Brussels to meet the other 27 leaders on Wednesday night. But this timetable is slipping fast.
The UK and the EU are still far apart on crucial questions, and the Government hasn’t decided what to do next.
A Brussels smash-up looks more likely than an agreement at this point.
One member of the inner Cabinet who attended its discussion on Thursday night tells me that the meeting “didn’t really settle anything”.
It looks like the UK and the EU are heading for another Salzburg-style smash next week[/caption]
I am told that “the PM chaired as opposed to opined”. What the meeting was discussing was whether the so-called backstop should have an end date to it.
This backstop would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until and unless a trade deal is signed between them.
It would also keep Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU unless there was technology that could keep the border as it is today — something which the EU claims doesn’t currently exist.
I understand that Liam Fox was clear that the backstop must have an end date to it.
His argument is that without that the EU would have little motivation to sign a trade deal with us as it would have us in a customs union already.
We would also not be able to make meaningful trade deals with any other country in this period, denying the UK one of the key benefits of Brexit.
Other cabinet ministers also made clear that the backstop had to be temporary.
But they were less emphatic than Fox about the need for a date.
the Northern Irish part of the backstop can only be ended with the EUs permission[/caption]
Most of them accept Number 10’s point that the EU wouldn’t accept a date, so some other form of time limit is needed.
Interestingly, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, was one of the most adamant on this point.
One minister present tells me that Hunt was “harder than you’d expect”.
I understand that the current thinking is that the UK will request a break clause.
One well-informed source tells me: “The fudge of the review date will keep most of the Cabinet together.”
But the problem is the Cabinet Brexiteers are clear that they don’t want the EU to control the break clause.
It is, though, hard to see the EU not insisting that — at the very least — the Northern Irish part of the backstop can only be ended with its permission.
One of those close to the negotiations tells me: “If their appetite for fudge is as good as the PM’s then a deal can be done. But I’m not sure it is.”
The Government wants a UK-wide customs backstop to reassure the DUP, upon whom May is reliant for her Commons majority[/caption]
Another Government source warns that while the EU is prepared to fudge the political declaration, it won’t fudge the withdrawal agreement as that is a legal document.
The other problem is that the Government wants a UK-wide customs backstop to reassure the DUP — upon whom May is reliant for her Commons majority — that Northern Ireland won’t be put into a separate customs territory to the rest of the country.
But at the meeting of the inner Cabinet on Thursday, it was made clear that the EU hasn’t even agreed to this yet.
This morning, it looks like the UK and the EU are heading for another Salzburg-style smash next week.
May will turn up on Wednesday night, but the UK and the EU are still reading off different menus.
It remains to be seen if the ticking clock can concentrate minds and get a deal done.
It’s a frosty outlook for May
RELATIONS between Theresa May and the DUP, upon whom she relies for her Commons majority, are at sub-zero levels.
Things are so bad that one senior DUP figure has told influential Tory MPs that he wants her gone by November.
Mrs May needs to reassure the DUP that Northern Ireland won’t be put into a separate customs territory to the rest of the country[/caption]
Now, the DUP’s demands are unlikely to be met in the short term.
But if the confidence and supply deal between the Tories and the DUP breaks down, then it will become very hard for the Tories to govern – they’ll simply have no majority.
Some, though, are prepared to give it a try.
One minister – who is part of an operation to shore up May – tells me: “You don’t need Parliament to govern successfully.”
Tensions between May and the DUP have been brewing for a while.
The DUP are furious because various assurances she gave them about the backstop in December have not been borne out by events.
The DUP aren’t slow to feel offended and they feel her civil servants arrogantly assume they haven’t anywhere else to go, so will accept whatever the Government does.
But there is a feeling among the Cabinet that Number 10 have got the relationship with the DUP wrong, that they have failed to understand how fundamental the Union is to them.
As one Government source remarks wearily: “On their red lines, you can make as many threats of Corbyn as you like and it won’t make a difference.”
You need the DUP for more than just numbers, but moral authority too
Equally, offers of extra money for Northern Ireland won’t win them over if they feel that the deal will end up threatening its place in the Union.
A growing number of people in Government accept that it is becoming more and more likely that the DUP won’t vote for the withdrawal agreement.
But they argue that the party only has nine MPs, so the numbers can be made up elsewhere.
But as one Cabinet Minister warns: “You need the DUP for more than just numbers, but moral authority too.”
For if the DUP won’t vote for the deal because they think it threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, then a bunch of Tory MPs will follow suit.
Deep pocketed donor
SOMEONE still values what Theresa May says.
At a Tory fundraiser on Wednesday night, a donor paid £150,000 for a copy of her conference speech – a record price for the text of a Tory leader’s annual address.
I’m told that she’ll be signing it for the deep-pocketed donor.
DUP pose threat to budget
TO try to avoid the Budget getting caught up in the Brexit crossfire, the Government decided to have it early – on October 29.
This strategy has failed.
The DUP could play havoc with the Budget without having to vote against it[/caption]
The DUP are already threatening to vote against it if they are not happy with what the Government is proposing on the Irish backstop.
But the DUP could play havoc with the Budget even WITHOUT voting against it.
Imagine if they put down an amendment to the finance bill proposing that, for instance, billions more be put into universal credit or that post-Brexit, VAT should be removed from domestic fuel.
If these amendments are passed, which they could with the support of Tory rebels and the opposition, then it would blow a hole in the Government’s finances – leaving Philip Hammond with a very expensive headache.
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Matt’s feeling chipper on EU
AN intriguing meeting of the Green Chip group of Tory MPs on Tuesday night.
Mark Harper, the former Chief Whip, argued that the kind of deal May is seeking with the EU wouldn’t get through the Commons.
Matt Hancock says it would be harder for Labour to vote against a deal agreed by 28 countries than people realised[/caption]
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary countered that it would be harder for Labour to vote against a deal agreed by 28 countries than people realised.
While Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, emphasised that a Canada-style deal would be much better than no deal.