David Davis was racking up the frequent traveller miles again this week, with another trip to Brussels for the fifth round of talks with counterpart Michel Barnier. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a case of fifth time’s a charm for the Brexit Secretary.
Like every round of talks before it, the Brexit Secretary was headed back to London with both sides showing visible frustration. The UK negotiators at the unwillingness of the EU to begin discussions on future relations and trade. The EU frustrated by British continued unwillingness to commit to an amount it will pay when leaving the bloc.
With Mr Barnier describing talks as deadlocked, it’s tough to see what if anything can break the impasse. Mrs May’s Florence speech doesn’t seem to have done the trick, and there appears little sign of either side backing down. The need for a transition period seems more evident than ever, and the potential for no deal at all an increasing possibility. The BBC might have gotten sight of documents showing the EU is preparing for trade talks, but that speaks more to their gearing up for those discussions than negotiations on trade actually happening in the short-term.
If the measure of a good decision is whether you’d do the same thing again if given the chance, Theresa May’s was probably left musing whether she would accept an invitation to appear on LBC this week. Why? Because she was asked, point blank, would she vote Leave if there was another referendum.
Taking the interview equivalent of a sucker punch from Iain Dale, the Prime Minister nearly pulled a muscle trying to dodge the question. But her ‘assess the merits of the arguments’ schtick would’ve sounded distinctly like a ‘no’ to those firmly in the ‘Leave’ camp. Whose mood was probably soured further when First Minister Damian Green popped up on Newsnight to say that he absolutely, positive and definitely would vote to Remain if given the chance again.
The reality is Theresa May’s answer on LBC doesn’t matter a jot to Brexit negotiations or change the job of work in front of David Davis. But it still matters, because ardent Brexiteers in the Tory ranks will doubtless be concerned their weakened Prime Minister doesn’t really have her heart in it. And that could undermine the PM’s longer-term position and authority, despite her seeing of an embryonic and decidedly non-covert coup attempt by former Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps.
Raiding the piggybank
It wasn’t exactly an episode of ‘Neighbours at War’ on Downing Street this week, but there was a distinct chilliness in relations between Mrs May and her Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The rift was hardly helped by Philip Hammond’s appearance in front of the Treasury Select Committee and a column for The Times this week, in which he insisted the Treasury was preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario in Brexit talks, but money wouldn’t be spent on those preparations until it was “responsible” to do so. Essentially, we’ll wait until we’re pretty sure what’s going to happen rather than spend preparing for possibilities.
The PM has something of a different view. Addressing MPs in the Commons chamber, Mrs May agreed with the Chancellor that every contingency was being prepared for, but went in a distinctly different direction by also suggesting money would be spent where it’s needed. Cue headlines across Fleet Street suggesting Mr Hammond had been slapped down having crossed the boss.
The Chancellor’s position is anything from certain. Downing Street hasn’t been shy about rumours a reshuffle is on the way, and Mr Hammond is squarely in crosshairs of ‘Leavers’ who believe him to be both pessimistic and obstructive when it comes to Brexit, and would expect him to go particularly if Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, another fan of Brexit-focused newspaper articles, is forced out.
It would be a bold move by the Prime Minister to drop Mr Hammond with the Budget looming on 22 November. And it would surely be tough to get rid of him immediately after. And then there’s the question of business and City might react if there’s a substantial change at the Treasury. Mr Hammond has been an impassioned advocate for the needs of business and the City in Brexit proceedings to keep them on these shores. The question is how might business react if ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ gets his P45?
Repealing the repeal?
While the City might be keeping a wary eye open for removal vans at 11 Downing Street, the Westminster bubble’s been back in full swing. Except, apparently, when it comes to the legislation formerly known as the Repeal Bill.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom drew the short straw on this one, confirming debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill would be postponed as ministers grappled with no less than 300 proposed amendments to its content. The Bill was already going to be a fight for the Cabinet, with ministers being heavily criticised for the legislation’s inclusion of so-called Henry VIII powers that opponents have claimed will enable ministers to change the law immune from parliamentary scrutiny. But with some of the amendments understood to have the support of Tory backbenchers, the Prime Minister could be facing a possible insurrection within her own ranks.
Failure to pass the Bill would be at best a body blow to Theresa May’s administration, but more likely would be the final nail in its coffin. Well, no-one said the tough Brexit discussions were exclusive to Brussels. Which brings us up to…
The will of the people
Commons speaker John Bercow has never been afraid to put the proverbial cat among the proverbial pigeons. And the man with arguably some of the most creative putdowns in Westminster was at it again this week, suggesting there was no obligation on MPs to vote for a Brexit deal because the public voted to leave in last year’s referendum.
The role of Parliament in the Brexit process has been debated at length. But the Speaker’s intervention raises yet another potential barrier for the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. Already struggling to progress talks with the EU negotiators, Theresa May faces the prospect of coming to Westminster with a deal (or perhaps without one) and having to strongarm MPs to ratify whatever arrangement has been reached with the EU27.
It’s a headache officials could do without, and there’ll be plenty of MPs on both sides of the Despatch Box prepared to vote down a Brexit deal because they don’t like it, don’t want Brexit, or potentially because of party politics. The Government has a tough negotiation on its hand in Brussels, but is facing equally testing times at home.
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