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Front Bench: Crunch week for May – can she get the breakthrough she needs to survive?

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One of those weeks

For a woman who has been Prime Minister for fewer than two years, Theresa May has faced her “most important week so far” an awful lot of times. This one looks set to add another seven days to that list. 

Michel Barnier arrives in Britain on Monday to meet with the PM and the Brexit Secretary David Davis. They’re hoping to start the week off on the right foot, with negotiations set to get underway in Brussels that will focus for the first time on a post-Brexit transition deal.

May will then meet with her 11-member Brexit “war cabinet” on Wednesday and Thursday to thrash out once and for all the Government’s policy on customs with the EU  The PM prepared for that meeting by having a Downing Street source brief this morning’s newspapers that Britain was absolutely not going to stay in either the customs union or a customs union.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out either a “customs arrangement” or a “customs partnership” – a point which will not be lost on hardline Brexiteers. 

Semantics or cake? 

What’s the difference between a union and an arrangement? The later should allow Britain to remain free to sign trade deals around the world but keep customs controls with the EU to a minimum, but in the EU’s eyes that’s just “having your cake and eating it”. 

All this comes after a furious row last week that only got worse at the weekend. Starting out as an argument over the/a customs union, it quickly descended into a fight in the papers and over the airwaves about the impartiality of the Civil Service on Brexit. 

Monday’s papers continue to dissect the row. Matt Ridley inThe Times is with the hardline Brexiteers on this one, while Iain Duncan Smith writes in The Telegraph that “groupthink”, not plotting is to blame.

Juliet Samuel however, in a strong piece, tells Brexiteers to stop whining about the Civil Service and actually make the positive case for leaving the customs union. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, an outspoken critic of the Government’s handling of the customs union plan with the EU

Credit:
AFP

Where does that leave May? 

The PM has just received the backing of the biggest group of Tory donors, the Midlands Industrial Council, who want to see her stay on for the foreseeable future. That’s significant backing, but what should worry May is that it was seen as necessary. 

The vote of confidence from donors comes after The Sunday Times carried a warning that, if this week goes to pot, Brexiteers were plotting to put in place a “dream team” of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Jacob Rees-Mogg as PM, Deputy, and Chancellor respectively.

The report also claimed Liam Fox would resign as Trade Secretary if a customs union was agreed.  Slip up and it’s all over then? Perhaps. But the fact that the “plotters” were so keen for the press to know about their schemes suggests, oddly, how reluctant they actually are to pull the trigger.

Instead, it looks more like a move to put very public pressure on the PM to do what they want.  A fudge may be the most likely outcome of this week. And if it is, we’ll finally see if the hardline Brexiteers have truly had enough of compromise.

Today’s cartoon


Credit:
Patrick Blower/The Telegraph

In the news

TRANSITION TRADE TROUBLE?

The story | Peter Foster in The Telegraph reports on the troubles Britain is having “rolling over” up to 40 existing EU free trade deals for the Brexit transition. The hope had been Britain could simply replicate the deals, but several countries, most notably South Korea, look set to demand fresh concessions. [ Telegraph]

The takeaway | This could be a big problem. There’s not a lot of spare capacity in Whitehall to handle vast new sets of negotiations. If the EU doesn’t step in to help the UK, then any transition period could end up being far less soft for businesses than intended.

BRITAIN IS GROWING JUST FINE

The story | A leading think tank, EY Item Club, has revised its UK growth estimates for both 2017 and 2018. It reckons Britain grew 1.8 per cent in 2017, which is better than expected, and moved its 2018 forecast up from 1.4 per cent to 1.7 per cent. [ Telegraph]

Why it matters | These aren’t the official figures, but they give a good indication of what those will be. The news will likely be greeted by ironic shouts of “despite Brexit” from Brexiteers, as well as an exasperated “we haven’t left yet” from Remainers. It does matter politically however. The more economic good news there is, the less effective warnings of a “catastrophic” Brexit become.

FOREIGN STUDENTS FLYING IN

The story | The number of foreign applicants for places at British universities has hit 100,000 for the first time. This included an increase in applicants from the EU. [ Telegraph]

Telegraph Take | Pick up a copy of The Guardian and you’ll see this story as “a last minute rush before Brexit closes the door”. More likely, considering the sharp rebound after last year’s dramatic fall in EU applicants, is that worst of the fear mongering has passed and that European students are now confident once again of being able to complete their studies at Britain’s world-leading universities unmolested.

What the papers say

What’s the story | It’s all about this week’s EU negotiations. It’s not the biggest item on all the front pages, but, with the exception of The Guardian, its on the front of all the qualities. 

Why | This isn’t quite “set piece” politics, but its near enough that the story can’t be ignored. This week could set the tone for the next few months, so everyone is just a little excited or nervous.

Briton’s have little faith in the UK’s negotiating skills

By Patrick Scott

Michel Barnier – the EU’s chief negotiator – is in London today to meet with David Davis ahead of the next round of Brexit talks in Brussels. Given the bruising nature of previous rounds Davis will no doubt be hoping that some British hospitality will ingratiate him with his counterpart. 

The British public certainly think that the government has significant ground to make up in its efforts to extricate the UK from the EU on favourable terms. YouGov’s tracker on whether the government are handling negotiations well or badly currently stands at a net score of -32. 

Granted, this is an improvement on the -43 score from early December last year, but David Davis will be desperate to seize the initiative ahead of the first talks of 2018.

And finally… Matt’s life

Matt Pritchett for The Telegraph

On this day in 2013, MPs prepared to vote on the legalisation of gay marriage the day after then Energy Secretary Chris Huhne had resigned over a scandal that would eventually see him jailed. Huhne’s wife had lied about being the driver of a speeding car so that her husband could escape a driving ban. 

Article Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/05/front-bench-crunch-week-may-can-get-breakthrough-needs-survive/

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