Boris Johnson might finally resign at the Brexit summit as Theresa May gets ready to compromise

Time to negotiate Brexit has always been the enemy, but perhaps May will now try to turn the lack of time into her friend

Andrew Grice
Friday 29 June 2018 21:55 BST
What is still needed to complete a deal with the EU?

Although time is fast running out to secure a Brexit deal, Theresa May is still going round in circles.

In March last year, when she triggered the two-year Article 50 exit process, the prime minister warned the EU that “failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”. That was seen as blackmail by the EU and went down so badly that May backed down. In her Florence speech six months later, she promised that, whatever happened in the negotiations, “the UK is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security”.

However, May has now revived her threat. She warned the 27 EU leaders at their Brussels summit last night they were putting their citizens’ lives at risk by restricting co-operation with the UK on crime and terrorism after Brexit. It won front-page headlines at home, and tossed a tiny bone to the hardline Brexiteers demanding she “gets tough” in the negotiations. But it was a desperate diversionary tactic to distract attention from the UK’s woeful failure to produce a Brexit blueprint, two years after the referendum and only nine months before it leaves the EU. The threat again played badly in Brussels, where it was seen as a step backwards at a time when both sides agree they urgently need to move forwards.

May was trying to appeal over the heads of the commission, which handles the talks, in the hope the 27 leaders order it to show more flexibility. The commission takes a black and white view of the world; the EU is a rules-based organisation and if you are in the club, you obey all the rules.

On security, that means the full jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). May is prepared to respect the ECJ’s remit on case law, but not its direct jurisdiction. There is a deal to be done with the UK as a “third country”, and probably at the eleventh hour. But May will need to move further on the ECJ, one of her red lines. The EU leaders, meeting without May this morning, made clear their frustration at the lack of a UK plan but offered to change their red lines if she dilutes hers. It’s an olive branch she would be wise to grab.

The Brussels summit was long seen as a significant milestone towards a Brexit deal. At the very least, agreement was expected on how to avoid a hard border in Ireland. But it ended today with no sign of progress. EU officials now eye the 18-19 October summit as the critical moment. In their diaries, they have ringed the Conservative Party conference ending on 3 October; they hope May will “get serious” after clearing that hurdle. But a deal now looks unlikely before the EU’s December summit.

UK cabinet ministers have always admitted privately that time was their biggest enemy; the EU would have the whip hand as the clock ran down to 29 March, 2019. Despite talk by both sides about stepping up preparations for a “no deal” departure, Brussels knows the lack of planning by London makes it empty rhetoric.

Now May will try to turn the lack of time into her friend. When the cabinet meets at her Chequers country retreat next Friday, she will argue that time is running out to secure a good deal, with only six working weeks before the October summit because of the summer break. So the moment for compromises has arrived. Is this a cunning master plan May had all along, which explains why she has repeatedly put off difficult decisions to another day, exasperating UK and EU officials and ministers alike? I doubt it very much. Her priority – day-to-day survival – leaves little room for grand strategy.

The compromises could include sticking close to the EU single market for goods, which might in turn require a form of free movement for EU workers with a job to take up in the UK, a close customs arrangement for the foreseeable future, a bigger remit for the ECJ and continuing budget payments. To Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, this would amount to a soft Brexit – in his eyes, worse than EU membership, since the UK would have no say over single market rules. It might be the moment when he resigns, and he might not be alone.

May’s dilemma is that the White Paper due to be agreed at Chequers needs to be specific in order to break the logjam in the EU negotiations. But she might be tempted to make it a Green Paper in all but name, with options rather than firm proposals, in an attempt to keep everyone on board and prevent resignations.

May should finally face down the hardline Brexiteers and deliver the blueprint the EU needs to advance the talks. As one Brussels source told me today: “The Brits are cutting it fine, to say the least; the longer they wait, the worse deal they will get.”

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