May’s truce tested as Brexit pledges unravel

Today and tomorrow, lawmakers will debate the EU Withdrawal Bill, May’s key piece of Brexit legislation


LONDON • The fragile truce Theresa May struck with her warring Cabinet and the European Union (EU) last week was already being tested yesterday, as some of the promises made to clinch a breakthrough Brexit deal started to fray.

Brexit Secretary David Davis was among those sending signals over the weekend that the UK wasn’t really committed to what it signed up to last week after rushed four-way talks between London, Dublin, Brussels and Belfast. A bid to placate the pro-Brexit faction of May’s Conservative Party had the side effect of angering the Irish government, and with it, probably the EU.

Davis told BBC TV on Sunday that a fall-back provision in the agreement — that Britain will maintain regulatory “alignment” with the EU in the absence of a deal to keep an open border with Ireland — doesn’t mean Britain can’t set different rules. He also raised a question about how binding the deal is.

The deal “was much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing,” Davis said, referring specifically to provisions on the Irish border. Still, “if we don’t get a deal, we’re going to have to find a way of making sure we keep the frictionless border, as it were, an invisible border, in Northern Ireland.”

May is treading a fine line to balance the competing demands of Brexit supporters in her Cabinet, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, with the wishes of her divided backbenchers as well as those of the EU, EU member Ireland and the Northern Irish party that props up her government.

Irish Fightback
Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney hit back against the claim that the deal isn’t binding with a Twitter message late Sunday pointing to a clause in the agreement that the commitments “are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement”.

The Irish government issued a statement saying “both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the Phase 1 agreement” struck last Friday.

The Irish view matters because the final obstacle cleared by May before sealing last week’s deal was finding wording about the Irish border that kept happy both Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government.

May reiterated the words “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” in an emailed statement yesterday.

Nevertheless, she said last Friday’s agreement has injected “a new sense of optimism” into the process.

“This is not about a hard or a soft Brexit,” she said. “This was never going to be an easy process. It has required give and take for the UK and the EU to move forwards together.”

May yesterday was scheduled to hold a Cabinet meeting before later addressing the House of Commons to spell out the deal. Rumblings of dissent emerged over the weekend, with the Sunday Times reporting that May faces pressure from Gove and Johnson to pursue a “hard” Brexit.

They’ll demand a transition deal and a trade agreement that allows the UK to write its own laws without seeking EU approval, the paper said.

“We should show the maximum flexibility in this negotiating phase so we can then exercise the maximum freedom as a nation at the end,” Gove wrote in the Telegraph on Saturday. After a two-year transition period, he said, the UK should have “full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and customs union”.

Tory Rebels
Today and tomorrow, lawmakers will debate the EU Withdrawal Bill, May’s key piece of Brexit legislation. She’ll face attempts by her own backbenchers to amend the bill to call for Parliament to approve Britain’s final withdrawal terms before Brexit can happen.

Ten Tories have put their names to the amendment — in theory, enough to cancel out her majority.

With last Friday’s deal, May secured the recommendation of the European Commission that the Brexit talks will progress to the trade discussions she sorely wants. Later this week, the European Council will decide whether to accept that recommendation.

On Sunday, Davis spelled out the sort of trade deal he’s after, describing it as “Canada plus plus plus”, a reference to the EU’s existing deal with the North American nation.

“What we want is a bespoke outcome,” Davis said. “We’ll probably start with the best of Canada, the best of Japan and the best of South Korea and then add to that the bits that are missing, which is services.” He added that the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, defaulting to World Trade Organisation rules, have “dropped dramatically”.

Failure to strike a deal would render Britain’s financial commitment to pay as much as £39 billion (RM212.55 billion) null and void, Davis said. “No deal means that we won’t be paying the money.”