Inside Politics: Boris Johnson set for showdown meeting in Brussels

The prime minister will meet the EU Commission chief face-to-face, as political leaders take over from negotiators in search of an 11th hour compromise, writes Adam Forrest

Tuesday 08 December 2020 08:07
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Boris Johnson meets Ursula von der Leyen at 10 Downing Street in January
Boris Johnson meets Ursula von der Leyen at 10 Downing Street in January

Very occasionally, unlikely marvels arrive out of nowhere. One Isle of Wight resident was left “dumbstruck” when she discovered one of those beautiful monoliths while out walking on the beach – describing it as “really quite magical”. Could Brexit negotiators conjure up an unlikely marvel? It feels very unlikely indeed. The current mood is distinctly unmagical, with the two sides no closer to an agreement and almost out of time. Unless there’s a major concession from Boris Johnson or EU leaders soon, we are heading for a no-deal crash-out – sent spinning back to the time when cavemen gathered around the monolith.

 

Inside the bubble

 

Chief political commentator John Rentoul on what to look out for today:

Boris Johnson will brief ministers on the state of the trade talks when cabinet convenes this morning. Depending on progress in the talks there may be legislative action in the Commons, as the government brings in a taxation bill in addition to the internal market bill. Meanwhile health secretary Matt Hancock will accept MPs’ congratulations as he announces in the Commons that Covid vaccinations have started. 

 

Daily briefing

 

RUNNING OUT OF ROAD: Boris Johnson is off to Brussels this week to meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. After a lengthy phone call the pair agreed the conditions were currently “not there” for a deal, and have asked negotiators to give a presentation on the remaining differences. “It’s the end of the road for this process at the level of chief negotiators,” said one UK government official. How long do political leaders have to get an 11th hour compromise? Michel Barnier told EU ambassadors that Wednesday was the deadline for a deal, ahead of Thursday’s EU Council summit. But No 10 would only say a deal had to be reached “this week”. One EU source warned: “Somehow both sides seem convinced that the other side will fold in the end, and I see none of that.” Brussels has at least welcomed No 10’s commitment to drop the offending clauses from the internal market bill if a deal is done – an olive branch, but at this stage, not a very important one.

 

NEVER MIND THE POLLOCKS: So was there any progress in the past two days? It doesn’t look like it. UK negotiators have proposed taking the pelagic fishing industry out of the Brexit negotiations and dealing with it in a separate forum, according to RTE. Barnier’s team was unimpressed. Brussels was also said to be angry over a “last-minute demand” that fishing boats should be majority British owned to benefit from the larger catch in UK waters – with diplomats accusing Britain of trying to “nationalise” European vessels. Meanwhile, new warnings about what we’re all facing in just three weeks’ time. The chief executive of HMRC said British businesses face an “administrative burden” cost of £7.5bn a year in filling out customs paperwork. The head of Toyota’s European business Johan van Zyl said a no-deal outcome would turn Britain into a “very negative investment environment”. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has written to the PM pleading with him to negotiate an “adjustment period” of three to six months with the EU to help businesses survive.

 

V-DAY CELEBRATIONS: Today marks the beginning of the coronavirus vaccine roll-out, with 90-year-old Coventry woman Margaret Keenan the first to get the injection this morning. Around 70 hospital hubs across the UK will start giving the Pfizer jab to the over-80s and some NHS staff. “We will look back on today, V-day, as a key moment in our fightback against this terrible disease,” said health secretary Matt Hancock. The Ministry of Defence said 60 military planners are working with the vaccine task force on emergency plans to avoid Brexit disruption, with Foreign Office minister James Cleverly confirming the government was “non-commercial flight options” to make sure there was no delay. Meanwhile Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said people over 80 shouldn’t worry if they don’t receive a letter about vaccination this month, as the “vast majority” of them would get the jab between January and March. The government said the “majority” of vulnerable people in the UK will be vaccinated throughout January and February.

 

YE WERE TELT: Nicola Sturgeon has sparked fury among Scottish Tories by having the audacity to rebuke the royals. The SNP leader made clear the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had been warned of the guidance against cross-border travel ban ahead of their trip to meet ambulance workers in Edinburgh. She said the Scottish government “made sure that the Royal Household were aware” of restrictions. The damned cheek! One unnamed Tory MP told The Mail: “The man is the future King of Scotland. It is very unsubtle and I think it will backfire on her because there are a lot of loyalist Scots.” King of Scotland? Loyalists? There’s a lot wrong with that, but we don’t have time ... Moving on to Wales, health minister Vaughan Gething further restrictions could be needed there after Christmas as Covid cases continue to rise. Wales is the only area where figures were not falling at the end of November. Some experts warned that London may have to go into tier 3 restrictions, after 21 boroughs showed worrying rises in case rates.

 

DIPLOMATS WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD: The currently terrible relations between Russia and Nato fuel the risk of “real military confrontation”, leading diplomatic figures have warned. The European Leadership Network (ELN), a think tank made up of former officials from Russia and Europe, have called for regular contact to start up again. “Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War,” they wrote in a letter to The Times. Covid crisis, Brexit chaos and a new Cold War – what a mess, eh? But for some Tories, there is nothing so appalling and frightening as the threat of tax rises. Jacob Rees Mogg has suggested the Tories could lose the next general election if chancellor Rishi Sunak flouts a manifesto pledge by hiking taxes. The leader of Commons told ConservativeHome is was not the time to “slap the economy down”, adding: “No sensible party or government ever breaks manifesto commitments willy nilly.”

 

AMERICANS FIRST: Donald Trump is reportedly planning to sign an executive order that ensures Americans receive access to the Covid-19 vaccine before the US extends assistance to other countries. It comes amid reports that his administration turned down an offer from Pfizer over the summer to purchase more of the vaccine, leaving the US with a total of 100 million doses (covering 50 million people) until June 2021. Meanwhile, Joe Biden named California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra as his health secretary – and is also retaining Dr Anthony Fauci as the government’s top infectious disease official. By the way, if you were wondering how Melania Trump is burnishing her own political legacy in her final days in the White House, the outgoing first lady said she was “proud to announce” the completion of a new tennis pavilion on the south grounds. Let them play tennis!

 

On the record

 

“Having heard from Michel Barnier … I would say he was very gloomy and very cautious about the ability to make progress.” 

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney on the downbeat mood.

 

From the Twitterati

 

“I hoped Owen Jones would drop the ridiculous “remainers should have supported Corbyn’s soft Brexit, even though leavers hated it” line.”

Anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole doesn’t like Owen Jones’ latest column blaming remainers

 

“Brexit and the things which come from it are the fault of the politicians who promoted and pursued it, not those who opposed it. This is simple and should not need saying.”

…and neither does editor Ian Dunt.

 

Essential reading

 

Ed Davey, The Independent: UK businesses need a period of adjustment to new rules next year

 

Sean O’Grady, The Independent: Brexit will be terrible, but we have to make the best of a bad job

 

Owen Jones, The Guardian: Hard remainers wouldn’t accept a soft Brexit – now we’re all paying the price

 

Helen Lewis, The Atlantic: The Crown is full of majestic political untruths

 

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