Brexit talks: expect more fudge

We have finally reached “Brexit, phase two”, as James Rothwell puts it on The Daily Telegraph website. European leaders rewarded Theresa May’s hard-won Irish border fudge by ruling last Friday that there has been “sufficient progress” for the two sides to start talking trade. The prime minister now has three months to get her cabinet to agree on what sort of trading relationship Britain wants with the EU after it leaves the bloc; trade talks will begin in March.

However, her room for manoeuvre is shrinking after Tory rebels and the opposition inflicted a defeat on the government in parliament last week. MPs voted to have more say over the final terms of the Brexit deal in a further sign of deep divisions within the Conservative party. Boris Johnson has also been banging the drum for the Brexiteers, telling The Sunday Times that if Britain stays too closely aligned with EU rules after Brexit it risks becoming a “vassal state”.

Meanwhile, European negotiators have been trying to pile extra pressure on Number 10: Michel Barnier announced this week that transition arrangements – which are designed to avoid a Brexit cliff-edge – must end by December 2020, earlier than Theresa May had originally hoped for.

Pressure mounts on May

Last week’s Brexit rebellion does not “give MPs a right to veto Brexit”, says The Guardian’s Dan Roberts, but it does prevent the government from “ploughing ahead with whatever exit deal it secures in Brussels”. In any case, with so little time to do a trade deal, any package May secures next autumn “is likely to be very thin gruel indeed”. Add in a newly emboldened parliament and pressure could yet mount “for a rethink of May’s opposition to full single-market membership as a ‘soft’ alternative”.

More fudging is inevitable to paper over splits, says Oliver Wright in The Times. “On one side of the debate are those, like… the chancellor”, who want to “prioritise alignment with the EU” for “the sake of the economy”. But Johnson and Michael Gove argue that “Britain cannot reap the long-term benefits of Brexit if it simply adheres to existing and new EU laws”.

Scope for compromise

Theresa May thinks she can rally the cabinet behind the promise of a “bespoke deal”, says Katy Balls in The Spectator. This means staying aligned with Europe in some areas to gain market access and diverging in others for competitive advantage. There is surely scope for compromise, agrees William Hague in The Daily Telegraph. “Ardent Brexiteers” have to accept that it makes little sense for our manufacturers to have different product standards from the rest of the Continent.

At the same time, though, we should decide on our own agricultural subsidies and it is “unthinkable to allow Britain’s massive financial services industry to have its regulations set exclusively outside this country”.

Yet whatever the difficulties of the next few months, Brexit is proving a “career saver” for the prime minister, , says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. May has seemed doomed ever since this year’s disastrous general election, but she clings on to power. This is testament not only to her “tactical artfulness and personal fibre”, but also shows that “as long as the process goes on”, neither wing of a bitterly divided Conservative party has an incentive to remove her.

Senior Tories are now urging May to stay on until 2021 for want of an obvious successor, says Matt Chorley in The Times. The prime minister’s leadership is proving “weak but stable”. She is likely “to last for a long time yet”.