London: Even by the manic standards of modern politics, it’s been a busy week for Brexit talks and Prime Minister Theresa May: a deal that seemed close on Monday, appeared far off by Thursday. If you’re trying to catch up, here are the key things we’ve learned.
1. May’s Cabinet hasn’t agreed on what it wants from Brexit
May’s top ministers were — and remain — fundamentally split on whether Britain is best served by closeness to or distance from the European Union and any attempt to make a decision risks seeing one side or the other walk out. This uncomfortable situation was confirmed by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond during a parliamentary hearing.
“The cabinet has had general discussions about our Brexit negotiations but we haven’t had a specific mandating of an end state position,” he told lawmakers on Wednesday. May’s office said afterward that this discussion would take place before the end of the year.
2. The Irish are prepared to get tough — all of them
The deal this week stalled on the question of how to simultaneously satisfy three incompatible points.
The Irish government is firm on the first point. Neither May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party nor her Conservative party will bend on the second. The leading pro-Brexit wing in the Cabinet insist on the third. May was counting on politicians on both sides to the border to be flexible, but they’re not playing along.
May, however, is not giving up. On Wednesday evening, it emerged that she is readying a new text to present to Ireland within 24 hours.
3. Theresa May might have misread the mood
It’s not so much that she can’t reconcile irreconcilable positions, but the Irish positions on these issues are passionate and have been well known for a long time. The Irish government says a hard Brexit — out of the single market and the customs union — would damage its economy. The DUP spent years negotiating in a political environment where some of their opponents were prepared to plant bombs to get their way — “The party plays hardball and likes high-profile stunts to reassure its own supporters it is fighting hard,” said Eurasia Group’s Mujtaba Rahman. Why is May’s government surprised that people stuck to their public positions?
4. The EU is siding with Ireland
One of the UK’s hopes was that the rest of the EU would put pressure on Ireland to agree to move things along. That doesn’t seem to have happened yet — although Brussels is doing its best to be helpful to May. The EU is ultimately siding with the country that’s staying in the bloc, rather than with the one that’s leaving. The UK repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking other countries — including Germany — will act in their economic self-interest and break rank rather than stand firmly united with the rest of the bloc.
5. The UK hasn’t assessed the economic impact of Brexit
This one was a bit of a surprise. For months, Parliament has been trying to get to see the detailed sector-by-sector analysis of leaving the EU that Brexit Secretary David Davis kept referring to. Having finally lost the battle to keep it secret, Davis on Wednesday announced that it didn’t actually exist. Doing it would be pointless, he said, because Brexit will be a “paradigm shift” for the economy and its impact will be impossible to foresee. While some lawmakers wanted Davis censured for misleading Parliament, it looks like he won’t face proceedings for contempt of Parliament after all.
6. No assessment either on impact of leaving the customs union
Asked whether any assessment had been done on the impact of leaving the EU’s customs union, Davis replied that there’d been “no quantitative assessment” . If a new book by the political journalist Tim Shipman, Fall Out, is correct, the Cabinet wasn’t even consulted about the question: He says the decision was made by May and one of her chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy, in September 2016, but then kept from ministers for months.
7. Tories ardently in favour of Brexit are getting anxious
On Tuesday, Davis tried to solve the Irish question by proposing that the entire UK would keep its regulations aligned with the EU’s. That prompted both private complaints from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and public ones from backers of a harder Brexit. In the following 24 hours, pro-Brexit campaigners including former leader Iain Duncan Smith and potential leadership candidate Jacob Rees-Mogg all warned May not to soften her stance.
8. The so-called Remainers are also getting fired up
But anti-Brexit Tories are also up in arms. Branded “Mutineers” on the front page of the Telegraph newspaper last month, they have become determined, rather than intimidated. “What the headline has done is to make us even more resolute,” former education secretary Nicky Morgan said. Her colleague Anna Soubry, asked why they had yet to vote against the government on its Brexit Bill, replied that so far, “we’ve got the concessions we needed.” Both agreed that a showdown will come December 20, when the government will try to set the date of Brexit into stone.
9. It’s all good for the main opposition party
The Labour Party — like the Tories — is divided on Brexit, yet being in opposition helps. Its leadership can sit back and watch May score own-goals without needing to be any more specific about where it stands on, for example, the customs union. Research published this week shows the public thinks the negotiation is being mishandled — and blames May. Labour’s deliberately obscure position of criticising the government without saying what it would aim for instead is paying off with some analysts already mentally preparing for early elections as soon as 2018.