IT is one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent political history.
On Wednesday afternoon the Brexit talks seemed pretty much dead. Even the optimists in Downing Street were struggling to see any way through.
But by Friday lunchtime the UK and the EU were agreeing to intensify negotiations as they searched for a deal.
I understand the negotiations going on in Brussels this weekend are serious. They aren’t just for show. This doesn’t mean a deal will be done, but things are on the move.
Now, the sheer pace of this turnaround is a reason for caution. As one of those intimately involved with the negotiation on the UK side says, there are still “many hurdles” to a deal.
Even the few inside Downing Street who are in the loop admit they don’t know whether this is a false dawn or not. One source warns: “You can see where the problems are going to be.”
I am, though, informed that the DUP — the Northern Irish party whose support is critical to any agreement — “are in deal mode”.
Earlier this week, relations between the British and Irish governments were in a very bad place.
A Downing Street source was telling me Leo Varadkar didn’t want to negotiate and had gone back on a commitment to think creatively if the UK would agree to an all-Ireland regulatory zone for both agriculture and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, Varadkar himself was complaining that the UK Government had reneged on Theresa May’s pledges and was then expecting credit for agreeing to honour some of them.
But the meeting between the two leaders at a country house hotel near Liverpool, where Coleen Rooney had her 21st, reminded both the other was serious about getting a deal.
They began to think about an agreement that respected both of their red lines, rather than one that forced either to ditch their positions entirely.
DEAL IS AN OPTION
The tone was, I’m told, “very reasonable”. Crucially, the European Commission is, for now, facilitating this progress.
Rather than pulling things apart on a technical level, it is letting the discussion run to see if a compromise can be reached.
It is too early, though, to start cooling the champagne. Reaching an agreement in principle will be easier than getting one in practice.
One well-briefed Government figure tells me this is “the start of the process towards a deal, not the endgame”.
There is also the fact that any deal will require the EU and the Irish to accept getting less on Northern Ireland than they did under the backstop agreed by Theresa May. No one wants to be the party to collapse the talks.
But the question is whether the current optimism can survive the talks moving from the big picture to the precise detail of how these new arrangements would work. Doing this deal by the end of the month would be very difficult.
This is particularly true as the Benn Act, which compels the Government to seek an extension if there is no deal by next Saturday, has removed some of the deadline pressure that could help speed through a deal.
A few days ago it looked like the only Brexit options were No Deal or no Brexit. But a deal is now back as an option. Whether it will take a general election to get there or not is another matter.
Shift to a second referendum
THOSE close to Boris Johnson are becoming increasingly concerned about a Commons majority for a second referendum and the creation of a government of national unity – a misnomer if ever there was one – to deliver it.
A second referendum has been defeated in the Commons several times. But the last time it was knocked back by just 12 votes.
With several May-era ministers now in favour, it has a chance of passing. One Government source tells me they “fear the numbers are moving in that direction”.
Backers of a second referendum intend to bring a vote when the Commons meets next Saturday.
With John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, indicating he could accept a referendum being held first, it is clear the top of the Labour Party is getting cold feet about an election.
This is perhaps unsurprising given the polls, which show them some way behind the Tories and only just ahead of the Liberal Democrats. Just winning that vote won’t be enough.
Unless John Bercow is prepared to rip up even more rules – something you can never discount – you would need Government support for a second referendum, as it would involve spending public money.
'FEAR THE NUMBERS'
Given Boris isn’t going to back a second referendum, you would need a new Prime Minister to do this.
Right now, you can’t have a new government because Jeremy Corbyn won’t back anyone else to be PM while the Lib Dems and former Tories won’t support him.
But what worries some of those closest to the PM is whether McDonnell’s shift suggests the Labour leadership could be about to accept someone other than Corbyn as temporary PM.
This would be a very big gamble by Corbyn. He would be risking the creation of a new party in Parliament he wasn’t in charge of.
But a second election defeat would end his leadership. Perhaps the option of playing for time is becoming more appealing.
Fracking vital for economy
THE Government is going soft on fracking.
There is a feeling that the target to bring greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050, along with local opposition and the level of disruption it causes, means fracking is no longer worth pushing.
Fracking at Preston New Road, Lancs, has been suspended after a larger than expected tremor, meaning there will be no more fracking in the country this year.
One Cabinet minister tells me there are “enough MPs who are concerned about it in marginal seats” to not make it worth it. This is a short-sighted attitude.
Fracking can both bolster the UK’s energy security and help create a slew of good, well-paid jobs. The Government shouldn’t give up on it.
EU ATTITUDE SHIFT
PERHAPS the most telling detail about Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel’s stormy phone call on Tuesday is that it all went so wrong when he asked her how she would solve the Irish border issue.
To date, the European Union has been better at knocking down ideas than proposing them.
That will have to change if a deal is to get done in the next few days.
Queen's speech to please her Maj
“IT WILL be a ‘Look what you could have won’ moment,” jokes one Downing Street aide about Monday’s Queen’s Speech.
The address is designed to give voters a sense of what the Government’s domestic agenda would be if Brexit had happened.
There will be a big emphasis on the Government’s domestic agenda of more money for the NHS, a beefing-up of policing and better resourcing of education.
There will also be a series of animal welfare bills, including a ban on live-animal exports.
Though Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, joked at Cabinet that the Queen would still be able to move her racehorses around.
The Tories will have a twin-track approach in any pre-Brexit election.
They will say: “Vote for us to get Brexit done, then we can get on with addressing your priorities.”
This speech may well be overshadowed by the negotiations in Brussels, but it gives them another chance to show voters what they would be doing if they had a majority and the first phase of Brexit was done.
- James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.
European Council President Donald Tusk is seemingly hopeful a deal is possible after breakthrough talks between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar
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