Politics 17 October 2018 | 7:07

Brexit Crunch Week: Day Three Update

17 October 2018 07:07

Double espressos all round: it’s going to be a long one. Theresa May heads to Brussels today, hoping to achieve a breakthrough – or at least to be rewarded with a better reception by her fellow EU heads of government than tumbleweed rolling over the conference table. Here’s the state of play:

  • Guess who’s not coming to dinner? After her humiliation at the EU meeting in Salzburg last month, the PM was hoping to be shown the love – at least a little – in Brussels this week. She’ll have to make do with addressing her 27 fellow heads of government this evening. A place has not been set for her at dinner. Ouch.
  • Tick tock. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said yesterday that the question of the Irish border was still the big problem. ‘It looks like a new version of the Gordian knot,’ he said, only slightly more pompously than usual. ‘Unfortunately, I can’t see a new version of Alexander the Great.’ He hoped, he said, that May would ‘present something creative’, but reminded her that ‘the clock is ticking’. Thanks for that, Donald (fun fact of the day: the European and American Presidents are only separated by three consonants).
  • #EUtoo versus #MeToo. Commons Speaker John Bercow looked to be in mortal political danger yesterday, following a report revealing the extent of bullying and sexual harassment in Westminster. But Labour – yes, Labour – rode to his rescue, declaring that Bercow’s role handling Brexit business in the House took precedence over his neglect of misconduct on the parliamentary estate, and the bullied and harassed would have to wait for justice. According to Dame Margaret Beckett, ‘the constitutional future of this country…trumps bad behaviour.’ Can’t we deal with both? Whatever happened to multi-tasking?
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg versus John Major. The love-child of Nietzsche and Wodehouse has been at it again, sneering at the former Prime Minister for daring to suggest yesterday that Brexit might not be the unmitigated triumph that was promised in the 2016 referendum. The scarily-indignant Rees-Mogg tweeted: ‘Pity Sir John Major who was so heavily rejected by voters in 1997 and has never recovered.’ We imagine that Major is quivering in his well-polished shoes.
  • The numbers aren’t there: Though May did not face an open Cabinet rebellion at its meeting yesterday – the mutinies are being planned elsewhere – she was warned by her Chief Whip, Julian Smith, that she does not have sufficient support in the Commons for any plan that would keep Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union indefinitely. Which is to say, as things stand, she doesn’t have the votes for a deal.
  • Breakthrough in Brussels? No reason to think there will be one. True, the rest of the EU does not want the UK to leave without a deal in place. But – this morning, at least – there is little sign of flexibility on the continental side. Some Cabinet ministers hope that there might be a compromise solution whereby the ‘backstop’ keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union would not be given a formal deadline – but might be subject to a series of conditional triggers that would bring it to an end by stages. Whether this hope is realistic or not should become a bit clearer in the next 24 hours.

The Prime Minister will not leave Brussels with a deal. The question is whether she will leave with much hope. As I keep saying – and I know how hard it is to believe – this only looks boring. More espresso, anyone?