Inside Politics: Boris Johnson appeals for ‘sweet reason’ as heads to Brussels

The prime minister is off in search of a breakthrough but EU officials remain downbeat, writes Adam Forrest

Wednesday 09 December 2020 08:12
Boris Johnson will board a plane to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon
Boris Johnson will board a plane to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon

A stubborn, isolated island people are on the verge of whole new relationship with the European Union. A stunning network of underwater tunnels will connect the Faroe Islands up with Denmark when it opens next week (check out the photos – a giant roundabout under the North Atlantic Ocean!). Boris Johnson is a big fan of bridges and tunnels. Our PM is hoping for a hands-across-the-water moment as he heads to Brussels today in a last-gasp bid to create a lasting trade link with the EU. If Johnson fails, it may be time to pull up the drawbridge and batten down the hatches.


Inside the bubble


Our political commentator Andrew Grice on what to look out for today:

Keir Starmer will take part in PMQs virtually from his north London home, after a member of his staff tested positive for Covid. After the lunchtime encounter, Boris Johnson will travel to Brussels for a working dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. Michael Gove will make a Commons statement on the deal reached with the EU on how last year’s withdrawal agreement will operate. June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA vaccines regulator, will be quizzed by the science select committee.


Daily briefing


MEAL DEAL FOR TWO: Boris Johnson is fond a hearty repast, and this evening’s dinner with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen will be one of the most important of his life. The PM said he hoped the “power of sweet reason” could still allow political leaders to clinch a Brexit trade deal. Brussels diplomats said EU negotiator Michel Barnier was downbeat in video call on Tuesday, assessing the chances of a deal as “slim” and “minimal at this point”. No 10 has at least dropped the law-breaking clauses from its internal market bill, having come to an agreement on post-Brexit border checks and trading rules for Northern Ireland. Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey scoffed at the “spectacularly back-pedalling,” having “wasted months threatening to break international law”. But Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney thinks it’s a good sign. “It’s hopefully a signal that the British government is in a deal-making mood and we can carry some momentum from this.”


BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE: More grim warnings for our Brexit winter. The Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive Ian Wright told MPs preparations had been a “complete shambles”. Explaining the rules for sending goods from Welsh ports to Northern Ireland had only just been published, Wright said: “It’s too late, baby … All of these arrangements are just too late for people to prepare.” There was even more striking testimony at the business committee. Miles Celic, head of TheCityUK, said up to a quarter of the UK’s financial activity was EU-related and up to 40 per cent of that business could be lost. The car industry is despondent too. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said a no-deal outcome was likely to mean a sales slump of 20 per cent to 30 per cent. It comes as Ineos – the company owned by Brexit backer Sir Jim Radcliffe – confirmed its new Grenadier cars will be manufactured in France, not in the UK as hoped. Thanks, Sir Jim. What a patriot.


IS THIS A TEAR WHICH I SEE BEFORE ME? There were cheers, tears and a few minor sneers on the first day of vaccination – as thousands of jabs took place across the UK. GPs will now begin booking appointments ahead of the arrival of around one million more doses of the Pfizer jab next week. It was all too much for Matt Hancock. Or seemed to be. The health secretary very briefly lost his composure on GMB, as he watched 90-year-old Margaret Keenan and 81-year-old William Shakespeare (!) become the first to get the jab. “It’s been such a tough year for so many people,” he said, looking down and wiping at his eye. Some terribly heart-hearted cynics noted there were no actual tears. Let’s be kind and say he performed his emotion pretty well. Although it was too much emotion for The Daily Mail: “Stop blubbering, man”. In other Covid news, researchers confirmed in The Lancet that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective, while Sir Patrick Vallance warned we may still have to wear masks for another year.


WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s “whistle-stop” train tour of England, Scotland and Wales isn’t going entirely smoothly. Having earned a minor rebuke from Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething complained: “I’d rather no one was having unnecessary visits.” No 10 offered some backing for the royals, and said the PM welcomed the “morale boost” William and Kate’s “hugely valuable” train trips have offered. Meanwhile, more than 40 local leaders – mostly Labour figures such as Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham” said time was running out to “save” Her Majesty’s kingdom. They called for a major review of the devolution and how power was distributed – or Scotland would soon go its own way. “Time is fast running out. We can still save our country, but we need to act now,” they said. All areas which had been in Scotland’s toughest level 4 category restrictions are to be downgraded to level 3 this Friday, while Londoners have been urged to “stick by the rules” on face moving into tier 3.


SOCIAL NETWORKING: Matt Hancock faces questions about a private meeting he held with Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg. Details of the encounter – which took place in 2018 when Hancock was still culture secretary – were contained in official papers released to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) following a lengthy freedom of information battle. Hancock told Zuckerberg he wanted to shift the government’s approach to big tech after the Facebook boss threatened to pull investment out of the UK. The minister said he wanted “encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”. Speaking of hot air, MPs have called on the government to stump up some money to help families cut carbon emissions. The climate change committee (CCC) has called for sales of new oil-fired boilers to be phased out by 2028 and gas boilers by 2033. Committee chief Chris Stark said: “There’ll be some households that we should be protecting from those costs.”


COURAGE OF YOUR CON-FICTON: Donald Trump and his remaining enablers haven’t actually given up yet. The outgoing president called on the Supreme Court to have the “courage” to overturn the results of the election. One of those noxious Republican enablers, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, has filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court arguing that Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin should not be permitted to cast votes because the states unconstitutionally altered mail-in ballot voting procedures. What a sad charade. Back in the real world, Joe Biden has set a target of getting 100 million coronavirus vaccinations done in his first 100 days in office, and urged Americans to “mask up” for at least 100 days. “We can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”


On the record


“Hope springs eternal … You’ve got to be optimistic. You’ve got to believe there’s the power of sweet reason.”

Boris Johnson tries to sound upbeat on a Brexit deal.


From the Twitterati


“When Michael says there is a pragmatic agreement on Northern Ireland, and the EU are happy, then you know we are being walked all over.”

Nigel Farage offers a furious response to the climbdown on the internal market bill


“Quick reminder that Michael Gove said he would quit his job if the government backed down on the internal market bill.”

…and anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole offers a gleeful reminder.


Essential reading


Rupert Hawksley, The Independent: The vaccine is emotional – so why shouldn’t Matt Hancock cry?


Vince Cable, The Independent: It’s time to give up the ‘sovereignty’ obsession and break the Brexit deadlock


Marina Hyde, The Guardian: From codpieces to zeppelins: here’s to the best of Brexit


Eric Posner, Project Syndicate: American democracy has passed the Trump stress test


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