In case you missed it, Theresa May is in Brussels today for talks with EU chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, plus the European Parliament’s Antonio Tajani and Guy Verhofstadt. These are ‘private meetings’ and No.10 has warned us not to expect much in the way of revealing statements afterwards. May is not expected to, ahem, inflame the situation by responding directly Tusk’s ‘hell’ remarks yesterday. As de facto PM David Lidington told Today: “I don’t think Donald Tusk was criticising the Prime Minister at all.”
Downing Street was more sanguine than you’d expect, mainly because it is once again playing the long game. The PM’s spokesman pointed out that Tusk said yesterday that “our most important task is to prevent a no-deal scenario”. And it’s worth noting that Irish PM and Tusk spent most of their time yesterday discussing no-deal prep, and it involves some awful choices for Dublin and Brussels. The EU’s priority to protect its single market is in direct conflict with Ireland’s priority to keep the Northern Ireland border open. The phrase ‘Ireland’s border is Europe’s border’ is a double-edged sword.
Tusk’s ‘hell’ remarks were scripted, rather than an off-the-cuff gaffe. But to what end? The Times reports Tusk aides saying he was ‘gobsmacked’ when she phoned him last week to ask what the EU would do to help her. Yet behind the bluster there is mutual interest in compromise. With Juncker ruling out any unilateral exit mechanism, it seems the main option has narrowed once more to that infamous legal ‘codicil’ or clarification that the backstop will not be indefinite. Tusk said yesterday the EU will not put “a sell-by date on reconciliation” in Northern Ireland, but that was not the same as ruling out a time limit of some sort. Even the ERG’s Sir Bernard Jenkin admitted yesterday that if the backstop could be ‘very substantially altered…I think we will be in the game’. Note too that the BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler said this morning: “They [the EU] are more flexible than they appear”.
Of course, what worries many ministers is that in playing it this long, May is playing with the fire of no-deal. There’s a growing expectation that next week’s Commons votes will be meaningless and the second ‘meaningful’ vote will take place later this month or even next month. While Tusk was hitting the headlines in Brussels, business secretary Greg Clark in London told a select committee “as I understand it the Prime minister is going to bring proposals back next Friday”. His face reddened when Rachel Reeves asked if he meant a revised deal, rather than a lame neutral motion. But Clark did also say: “For those that say we can play this to the wire, we can leave it to March 28, I say ‘No’, we’ve got to resolve it.” He also seemed convinced that the PM would not allow a no-deal exit because of the damage it would cause to jobs and the economy: “She has clearly in mind the consequences that the decisions before us have.”
2. BRANCH MEETING
Jeremy Corbyn has written to the PM with a fresh offer to help get a deal through the Commons. But is it an olive branch or a poisoned chalice? His new ‘five’ demands include the usual stuff about a ‘permanent customs union’, a ‘close alignment’ with the EU single market, workers’ rights, EU agencies and security co-operation. What was missing was the daft ‘exact same benefits’ test (a debating device to show up David Davis’s claim). What was also missing was any reference to a second referendum (the Speccie’s Katy Balls rightly spotted yesterday Tusk said “the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out” a People’s Vote), and that’s a can that seems to be kicked down the road as much as May’s own deal.
David Lidington this morning appeared unaware of claims (or unprepared to talk about them) that he would now be meeting Keir Starmer to discuss areas of common ground. Just as crucial will be Corbyn’s next meeting with the PM (don’t forget they will meet again). One Whitehall source tells me May was struck during their last meeting by how much Corbyn stressed the need to sort the backstop issue. And it seems that if she can tweak it, he can live with the withdrawal agreement. The Labour leader makes clear it’s the political declaration he wants changing, to reflect his customs and single market stance. The EU is happy to write whatever warm words May wants on the political declaration, but the PM knows she risks a Tory revolt if she flirts with Labour’s plans.
Of course, it’s smart for the Leader of the Opposition to be seen as conciliatory and grown-up. The ‘Common Market 2.0’ MPs in his party have been delighted by his new letter. But suspicions remain in government that this is all a trap. Both Labour and Tory MPs think Corbyn is offering something he knows May’s party can’t accept (just as he did last September), allowing him to keep voting against her deal while knowing many of his Leave MPs will help get her own version through. He’ll have clean hands from a ‘Tory Brexit’, yet look like he offered a credible compromise that businesses and others wanted.
The TSSA union poll on ITV’s Peston show last night revealed that being seen to back May’s Brexit would do more harm to the Labour party’s brand among voters than the Iraq war (though Blairites will again wearily point out that the party won a third general election two years after that war). And although he obviously has an interest in Brexit going ahead, there’s no way I can ever imagine Corbyn agreeing to be a ‘collaborator’ with a Tory government on anything.
3. DUN ROAMIN’
The Commons yesterday rose at the ridiculously early time of 3.27pm and many MPs grumble there is literally nothing for them to do. The PM’s ‘long game’ means the Commons will have to wait until she’s ready to offer her second ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit. But away from the main chamber, ‘upstairs’ in the committee rooms, there could well be a lot of action as a raft of no-deal Statutory Instruments continues to pile up. And yesterday we spotted one such SI, which confirmed that Brits travelling in the EU would indeed face the reintroduction of mobile phone data roaming surcharges.
What was significant in the accompanying government explanatory note was that ministers had considered pleas from consumer groups to continue the current system, but decided not to go ahead. Instead, they listened to the phone companies who warned that their costs would go up. Just two mobile firms have guaranteed no data charges in a no-deal Brexit, with the rest waiting to see how the land lies. Worth remembering that competition alone doesn’t always work - that’s why the EU introduced the data roaming curbs in the first place. Anyway, off the back of our story the Speaker has granted an Urgent Commons Question to Labour this morning. Let’s see how ministers respond.
Before then, Liam Fox has his own International Trade question time this morning and another HuffPost scoop - on his plans to slash some import tariffs to zero - ought to feature. Fox is sure to be asked about the FT splash that most EU trade deals will not be rolled into new UK deals in time for Exit Day. At midday we should hear more on the economy from the Bank of England’s inflation report. The PMI indicators recently suggested that we could actually see zero growth for the first quarter of this year.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this wonderful American mum embarrass her teenage son as she dances to the Backstreet Boys while stuck in snowbound traffic. Love it. No wonder it’s gone viral.
4. JUST CRIMINAL
This week’s police funding settlement was not pretty. And despite a nationwide spike in knife crime, the forces’ budget will be cut by £8m in the coming financial year, a leaked document seen by HuffPost makes clear. In a letter to police inspectors, David Jamieson, West Midlands police and crime commissioner (PCC), poses the stark question: “What should policing stop doing?”
5. HOTTING UP
Forget Brexit for a minute. The most scary story today was in the Guardian as it reported a new Met Office warning that global warming could temporarily hit 1.5C above pre-industrial levels for the first time between now and 2023. Meteorologists said there was a 10% chance of a year in which the average temperature rise exceeds 1.5C, which is the lowest of the two Paris agreement targets set for the end of the century.
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