1. TIME BANDITS
As I pointed out yesterday, time is Theresa May’s real enemy on Brexit. But as the clock ticks down, it has also proved difficult for Brexiteers too. Apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lines about ‘purgatory’ and Boris Johnson’s harrumphing in the Cabinet sub-committee on Tuesday, the PM seems to have so far succeeded in securing Tory agreement for her new plan to avoid chaos on the Northern Irish border. If it means extending EU customs rules for a few more months beyond the current December 2020 transition deadline (and certainly no longer than the 2022 general election), May can probably get away without a major backlash. DUP MP Sammy Wilson has told the Telegraph he would rather walk away without a deal than stay in a customs union into 2021. But Iain Duncan Smith, a real weathervane of Tory backbench opinion, told the Today programme he was not opposed to an extension of “a month or two” as part of a “very, very limited” delay. No.10 will be pretty pleased with that.
The more serious problem is whether Brussels or Dublin (or Paris or Berlin) is prepared to allow it. Leo Varadkar welcomed May’s shift in position after meeting her for bilateral talks yesterday but had this warning: “Any move on customs with the UK would be welcome but I need to be very clear that avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs. The single market and aspects related to regulation are important as well.” And Varadkar has the full authority of the EU here. It’s worth repeating this. I understand Brussels is dead against a ‘pick and mix’ of extensions of rules on bits of customs. It thinks that if the UK wants more time it will have to apply formally for an extension of the entire transition period (with the implication it will cost us more money too after the EU’s new budget in 2020). One hope was the flexibility on timing could be inserted to the ‘future relationship’ deal, while sticking to December 2020 red-line deadline in the ‘withdrawal’ treaty. But Brussels thinks that’s illogical, captain.
Buying time was certainly the tactic yesterday as Commons leader Andrea Leadsom confirmed to MPs that the EU Withdrawal Bill will not be considered by MPs again until after the upcoming week-long Whitsun recess. No.10 also refused to confirm that the …