What a week it has been, and we are only two days in.
Prime Minister Theresa May was back in the Commons on Monday afternoon, with a statement covering last week’s EU summit, and the round of diplomacy that preceded it.
Outlining the progress to date on EU citizens’ rights, the issue of Northern Ireland, and the UK’s financial commitments, Mrs May then concluded, ‘We are going to leave the European Union in March 2019, delivering on the democratic will of the British people. Of course, we are preparing for every eventuality to ensure we leave in a smooth and orderly way, but I am confident that we will be able to negotiate a new, deep and special partnership between a sovereign United Kingdom and our friends in the European Union.’
At the European Council Summit, Mrs May noted, ‘the 27 member states responded by agreeing to start their preparations for moving negotiations on to trade and the future relationship’. Which sounds great, until you remember that the EU27 agreed to commence internal preparations for negotiations on trade, not to commence trade negotitations themselves. Moreover, the EU27 made the formal declaration that ‘sufficient progress’ had not been made during the talks to date, the threshold required for talks to progress to trade. And what is more, they came to this decision in just 90 seconds.
Speaking of trade…
Theresa May is reportedly delaying a Cabinet debate on a future EU-UK trade deal because she is worried it will spark resignations.
Also – the Prime Minister and her most senior ministers are to embark on another round of fierce diplomacy over the coming weeks, aimed over the head of EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and squarely at the EU27.
Of dinners and leaks
To no-one’s surprise, the recent dinner between Mrs May, Jean-Claude Junker, and Michel Barnier was apparently leaked to the Monday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, better known as FAZ. (And yes, that name should ring a bell: that’s the very same German publication that published a detailed report of Mrs May’s disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker back in April.)
Once again, an unknown source has briefed the paper’s political journalist Thomas Gutschker with a detailed – and embarrassing – account of the Prime Minister’s latest dinner with Juncker, plus her later conversations with Angela Merkel and other EU leaders.
In a report published last Sunday night, Gutschker had said the mood at the latest dinner was “quite different” from the original May/Juncker summit in April. “She begged for help…Theresa May seemed anxious to the president of the Commission, despondent and discouraged.” The Prime Minister was also described as being “tormented,” sleep-deprived, with “deep rings” beneath her eyes.
FAZ also reported that Mrs May’s phone conversations with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were not seen as a charm offensive but as “calls for help,” which were rebuffed. “Merkel, Macron and Juncker could not be softened,” FAZ said. “All three insisted on further progress, especially on the sensitive issue of money, before there could be direct talks about the future. Brexit was not wanted and they could not solve the problems of the British for them, they said dryly in the chancellor’s office.”
However, the leak that wasn’t a leak that was a leak: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hit back yesterday and said “nothing is true” in the story, saying “I had an excellent working dinner with Theresa May.” When asked if Mrs May had pleaded with him for help, he said: “No, that’s not the style of British prime ministers.” President Juncker also rejected reports he called the Prime Minister “tired” and “despondent,” saying “she was in good shape” and “she was fighting, as is her duty, so everything for me was OK.”
According to The Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘furious’ at the leaks, and is concerned Theresa May could be toppled and replaced during the Brexit negotiations.
What next for the Chief Negotiator?
Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, has revealed that work has now commenced on the EU’s Brexit treaty, but added that he will quit his post before trade talks with the UK are complete.
Playing down the prospect of a no-deal scenario, Mr Barnier told European journalists: “I am convinced a path is possible as long as we de-dramatise the discussion. My team are already starting work on a draft of the treaty for the exit of the U.K. from the EU.” Mr Barnier warned a trade deal with Britain would be difficult and take “several years” to complete, but said he himself will step down shortly after Brexit Day in March 2019.
Budget day is now little more than a month away, and the Cabinet is at war over it. Cabinet rivals are apparently bidding to replace Chancellor Philip Hammond over fears he lacks the sufficient authority to get difficult budget measures through the Commons. The Times had the scoop this week, saying: ‘Last week’s cabinet discussion on the budget was described as “14 different job applications to be chancellor”. The meeting overran as so many figures around the cabinet table demanded to speak, including Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, David Gauke and Andrea Leadsom. One source said that of all the contributions, Mrs Leadsom’s were the most practical and sensible.’
Wither the EU (Withdrawal) Bill?
Day two of this week, and there is still no sign of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill this week. The list of amendments to date has, however, been published online. The PLP were apparently briefed by Labour’s Chief Whip that the Bill will not return to the Commons until after recess, week beginning 13th November…
Bercow versus the UK Government, round ??
There were extraordinary scenes in the Commons last week over the Opposition Day Debate on pausing the rollout of Universal Credit, with Commons’ Speaker John Bercow strongly criticised the UK Government’s actions (Conservative MPs were instructed to abstain in the vote), saying “this institution is bigger than one government”.
Now, he has now criticised UK government ministers for the “indefensible” delay in setting up one of Parliament’s key scrutinising committees, the Liaison Committee. The Liaison Committee, made up of the chairs of the various departmental select committees, has still not been set up more than four months after June’s general election.