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1) The Cabinet Were A Week Away From Being Forced To Eat Each Other (Probably)
Lucky is not a word normally associated with Theresa May, but given the Syrian snowstorm sweeping across the UK, it is fortuitous she arranged her Chequers away day for last Thursday, not this one.
If it had been this week, it might have been cancelled due to the snow. Or even worse – she could have been snowed in at the 16th-century Buckinghamshire mansion with Boris Johnson, David Davis and other members of her Cabinet. My money would be on Philip Hammond to be the first to come over all Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
The get-together lasted eight-hours, and included presentations from the UK’s former EU commissioner Lord Hill, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Greg Clarke.
Not all the day was spent talking about Brexit. Indeed, just three of the eight hours was devoted the subject.
The conclusion from the meeting – which was supposed to thrash out the UK’s opening negotiating position for the trade talks with the EU – was as unsatisfactory as the sweetcorn soup served as part of the catering.
Whereas firm conclusions were hoped for in areas such immigration, Northern Ireland and the future trading relationship with the EU, all that was briefed out by sources at the meeting was there was agreement on “ambitious managed divergence”.
May is set to reveal more of the conclusions of the meeting in a speech on Friday. It will be her third major set-piece on Brexit, after Lancaster House in January last year, and Florence in September. Will this be the Godfather III of the Brexit speeches?
(I was trying to think of an example of a good third part of a film trilogy, but struggled. Please tweet me your suggestions @owenjbennett)
2) Labour Has A Brexit Position It Can Mostly Agree With Itself On
Jeremy Corbyn decided that with just over a year to go until Brexit, he might as well express a view on the matter. Whether it’s his view or not, is another discussion, but he confirmed that Labour would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
The position hardly came as a shock – Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has been telling people that for weeks – but hearing it from the Labour leader itself seems to have solidified it across the party.
Staying in a customs union with the EU might well solve issues such as the Northern Irish border, but it does mean the UK would not be able to operate its own trade policy after Brexit.
Indeed, by being in the customs union but not in the EU, the UK has no say in any future trade deals Brussels signs. Corbyn argued that Brussels could be persuaded to give the UK a “say” on those trade negotiations – but did not explain what incentive the EU would have to offer that arrangement.
But regardless of whether Labour’s position is any more realistic than the Tories’ plan for a bespoke deal with the EU, it does mean the parties now have a clear point of difference on life after Brexit.
And that could cause serious problems for May, including her being ousted from Downing Street by her own party or even backing herself into calling yet another General Election.
You can read my analysis of how that could happen here, but the bottom line is Labour needs to persuade just 13 Tories’ to back its stance to tie the Government’s hands in the negotiation.
3) The EU Just Couldn’t Resist It, Could It.
Political hacks were already drowning in Brexit news this week when the European Commission unleashed a tsunami of information to process on Wednesday.
Remember how there was a breakthrough before Christmas, with the EU and UK agreeing the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc?
That is about to fall apart.
The Commission published the full version of the draft agreement, which takes in how much the UK will pay to the EU, citizens’ rights and the future of the Northern Ireland/Ireland border.
It’s fair to say the UK Government does not completely agree with the EU’s interpretation of what was agreed.
Commenting in the document at Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May said “no UK Prime Minister could ever agree” to the draft legal text published by Brussels.
She added that it would “undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK”.
I’ve gone through the 118 page document to dig out the key areas of difference between the UK and the EU – and you can read the full analysis here.
The key point however is over Northern Ireland. The EU wants to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union, something opposed by the Tories, and just as importantly, the DUP.
Echoing concerns raised on Tuesday by the former head of the World Trade Organisation that the frictionless border envisaged by the UK in the island of Ireland does not exist anywhere else in the world, European Commission President Donald Tusk said on Thursday: ““I want to stress one thing clearly: there can be no frictionless trade outside the customs union and the single market. Friction is an inevitable side-effect of Brexit by nature.”
In a meeting in Downing Street on Thursday, May made it clear to Tusk that keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union was a complete non-starter.
The PM said that the draft text put forward by the European Commission yesterday was unacceptable to the UK as it would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and constitutional integrity of the UK,” a Downing Street spokesperson said, adding: “The PM reiterated that both she and the Taoiseach have said that their priority is to resolve the border question through the overall relationship between the UK and the EU.”
One man who believes he has stumbled on the solution for the border is Boris Johnson. The Foreign Secretary thinks operating a border between two countries which potentially have different duties on tariffs and goods is the same as the having the congestion charge applying in the London borough of Westminster but not Camden.
“There is no border between Camden and Westminster,” he told BBC Radio 4′s today programme on Tuesday, “but when I was mayor of London we anesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people traveling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks.”
4) A Major Intervention
It’s not just the current Prime Minister involved in Brexit speeches this week.
Two of her predecessors stepped up to the podiums to give their views on the UK leaving the EU.
First up was Sir John Major. On Wednesday, the man who won more votes than any Prime Minister in 1992, before or since, said MPs should be allowed a free vote on any Brexit deal which the Government brings back from Brussels – and one option should be for another referendum.
He argued many voters now believed they had been “misled”, adding: “The electorate has every right to reconsider their decision.”
With Sir John calling on MPs to halt Brexit, his successor in Downing Street used a speech in Brussels to urge the EU to offer reform on freedom of movement to tempt the UK public into overturning its previous decision.
Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful election winning leader of all time, told the European Policy Centre think tank the EU needs to come up with “a comprehensive plan on immigration control, which preserves Europe’s values but is consistent with the concerns of its people and includes sensitivity to the challenges of the freedom of movement principle”.
The appearance of Sir John allowed his old foe over the Maastricht Treaty Sir Bill Cash to pop-up on Newsnight and say: “I thought I was watching another edition of Spitting Image actually when I watched the speech that he gave today.”
Blair’s speech was treated with similar disdain by Brexiteers, with Tory MP Eddie Hughes tweeting that the former PM is “living in a different era to the rest of us.”
Will Sir John and Blair’s interventions make any difference to Brexit? Sir John’s speech will do little to win over Leavers, and instead was more of a call to arms to Remainers. Blair asked the EU to do two things it historically doesn’t do: reform, and reform quickly.
A senior Brexiteer I spoke to this week is worried the mood of the country is turning against Brexit, but after a few minutes of chatting it was clear their mood was based on what was going on in Westminster, not in those communities who voted Leave in 2016.
Don’t Get Angry, Get Blogging…
At HuffPost we love a good blog, and here are the finest Brexit-penned entries from this week. Have a read, and if any of them provoke an urge in you to speak your brain, send a blog to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could find yourself in this very newsletter.
Michael Fabricant on why Corbyn’s latest Brexit position is a betrayal of Labour values
Axel Antoni on why EU citizens are sick of “begging to be part of a society that doesn’t want us”
Tom Brake on Johnson and Davis experiencing Brexit “delusionitis”