Theresa May at Tallin Digital Summit, 2017. Photo: Wikipedia Theresa May at Tallin Digital Summit, 2017. Photo: Wikipedia

Little progress was made in the Brexit negotiations, and Tory MPs are losing patience with May, finds Martin Hall

Despite talk of crunch time and the Tories about to implode over the direction of the EU summit that began on Wednesday evening, the smart money prior to the initial meeting and Thursday’s talks was on more delay. Theresa May has refused to rule out a 12-month extension to talks, a suggestion made by Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator. 

In the meantime, on Wednesday night she addressed EU leaders ahead of a dinner to which she was not invited, in order to give the EU27 time to digest and discuss her words. Like an unwanted aperitif, she presented the latest version of Chequers to be ‘agreed’ by the government. Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of Lithuania, tweeted this immediately afterwards:

#Brexit dinner: negotiations not on the menu. Expecting full English breakfast at next meeting #EUCO

— Dalia Grybauskaitė (@Grybauskaite_LT) October 17, 2018

For anyone expecting news, this made it clear that the real business would be done on Thursday, with the previous evening simply being the beginning of a difficult process, both for the EU, and the Tories, neither of whom want to see any disruption to the movement of capital, but who both have competing interests to consider. For May, it is the breadth of opinion within her party, from rabid Brexiters at one end to Europhile Remainers at the other. For the EU, there is the ongoing issue of the threat of a good example if the UK is seen as having got its way with a deal that splits the four freedoms.

Early reports on Wednesday suggested that nothing much had changed since the unsuccessful summit in Salzburg; there is still an impasse, in particular over the British border in Ireland.

What was definitely discussed, as confirmed by the European parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, was the issue of an extension to the transition period. The context for this is also the border issue, and the possibility of a backstop agreement regarding membership of the Customs Union for Northern Ireland, an idea proposed by the EU, and bitterly opposed by May’s partners in bigotry, the DUP, who in the great tradition of Ulster Loyalism, want to be treated as if they are an exceptional special case, and at the same time exactly the same as people in Britain. 

However, she is open to the possibility of an extension to the transition deal, as hinted at by various ministers on Wednesday. Both parties made it clear the following day that the length of that has not been discussed, but it is a safe assumption that it would be at least three years, as two years was agreed on principle in Florence earlier this year. Both the extension and the backstop are opposed by Tory Brexiters, some of whom have already made their displeasure very clear at the thought of both extensions and backstops, with Nadine Dorris tweeting on Wednesday night that it was time for May to go. 

An extension would involve Britain continuing to pay into the EU budget and would leave the government in the position of having to sell what is effectively continued membership (with the possibility that this could keep being extended) to the 17 million plus people who voted to leave in June 2016. Regarding the backstop, the EU is not willing to extend this UK-wide, which would make it an easier sell with the DUP. Confusion reigns within the Tories, with Penny Mordant saying that the prime minister did not propose the extension to the transition period, while all other sources say that is exactly what happened.

One concrete piece of news is that there will be no November summit, at which a final deal was supposed to be being agreed. This has now been put back to December. Angela Merkel stated after the summit that a no-deal Brexit is still very much on the table, in so doing applying more pressure to May’s fractious band of warring brothers and sisters. 

Contradictory noises are emanating from Brussels, as EU leaders make it clear that the chance of a no-deal Brexit have increased, while also sounding a note of optimism about the possibility of a deal, which both Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker are suggesting is nearer than it was prior to the summit. Meanwhile, Michel Barnier says he needs more time, hence the putting back of the next meeting by a month.

Theresa May made a point of playing down the idea of the extension to the transition period in her press conference, as she is concerned at the developing backlash from the Tory Brexiters. She is, like Mordant, keen to suggest this is not her idea, and simply something that has been put on the table. Instead, she is couching the proposal in language that suggests it is simply a new structure, not an actual extension. The difference between the morning, when she intimated she supported it, to the afternoon when she said that it simply ‘emerged’ suggests a need to row back, based on the pressure she is under. However, this will be described in the pro-leave Tory press as yet another concession, and her vacillation on the topic will not go unnoticed.

Despite this, has very much happened at all?

Not really, no. All parties appear keen to state that the process is ongoing: that more time is needed; that a deal is closer; that no deal is slightly more likely. Much of this needs to be considered via the competing interests referred to above, and the need to project confidence in there being an outcome, while not being overly clear about what it might be. 

What is clear is that the EU does not consider May to be in a strong position and that faith is lacking in her ability to hold together the various interests that she is attempting to represent. In the background for both the Tories and the EU is the possibility that the government might fall – especially if no deal is reached – and that a general election might return a Labour government committed to using state investment to skew the primacy of the market, specifically, the freedom of the movement of capital, which is really the prime driver in the EU’s framework; and, in the shorter term, that such a Labour government might transparently negotiate (working here on the logical assumption that a general election would necessitate renewed talks) based on need rather than profit. This is the scenario of a People’s Brexit that the Labour leadership want and that the party’s right wing, the Tories and the EU are so desperate to avoid.

What is also clear is that pressure from May’s right will increase in the coming days and weeks, and if the extension is announced, further cabinet resignations are a possibility. As has been the case since last year’s disastrous general election, from the point of view of the Tories, and by extension the EU, the elephant in the room is still a Corbyn-led government, and whether resignations, and indeed a leadership challenge, bring that closer.