The Queen will be in Portsmouth today as guest of honour at the commissioning of the UK’s £3bn new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. But Theresa May has reportedly cancelled her trip to the event as she focuses instead on rescuing her ‘Brexit breakthrough’ plan.
Exactly a week away from the next EU summit, May’s most pressing problem is on getting agreement on the Northern Ireland border issue. Irish PM Leo Varadkar said she’d told him yesterday “she wants to come back to us with some text tonight or tomorrow”, though he added that “we can of course pick it up in the New Year”. And although the DUP’s Nigel Dodds described the delay suggestion as “a dangerous game”, his own party is briefing it can wait too. A DUP source has a rather blood-curdling line in the Sun: “We’re going to slow it all down. This is a battle of who blinks first — and we’ve cut off our eyelids.”
Although May is looking forwards not back, the blame game within Government is well underway as to how on earth this week’s planned breakthrough could have collapsed. Several Tory MPs yesterday told me of their unhappiness with new Chief Whip Julian Smith, with one minister saying he failed to properly keep the DUP in the loop when tasked to brief them on Sunday. Some in the DUP also blame Damian Green, who is meant to coordinate with devolved governments, for the communications breakdown, but it’s Smith that’s in many sights now.
And even if May can come up with a form of words that gets the DUP back on board to move Brussels talks onto ‘Phase 2’, that next phase could be much more tortuous for the PM. Philip Hammond let slip that the Cabinet hadn’t even discussed, let alone agreed, on the ‘end state’ for Brexit. Yes, 18 months on from the EU referendum, our Government has not yet decided what kind of Brexit it wants.
The most notable feature of PMQs yesterday was the way May stressed the details of the Irish border issue could all be sorted in Phase 2 as part of wider UK-EU trade talks. That’s because the Cabinet hasn’t signed off such phrases as ‘regulatory alignment’. And Brexiteers think the DUP have done everyone a huge favour by focusing minds on what kind of trade we really want. Boris pushed back on ‘alignment’ in Cabinet on Tuesday, but Michael Gove kept his counsel, leaving others to suspect he was keeping his powder dry for the battle ahead over what the ‘end state’ will look like.
Chris Grayling insisted on Today that ministers “have had detailed discussions discussing the European Union issue”. Yet No10 told us yesterday the first ‘end state’ Cabinet discussion would take place by the end of the year. Brussels sounds even more intransigent on trade and transition than it does on the Irish border, divorce bill or citizens’ rights. With Hammond pushing in the ‘Norway’ direction on trade, Brexiteers pushing in the ‘Canada-plus’ direction and Brussels, May’s own future hangs in the balance as she tries to find a workable compromise. If she can’t sort the end-state, early 2018 may be the beginning of the end of her premiership.