The initial leaks of Theresa May’s deal suggest an ominous failure to take back control

The initial leaks of Theresa May’s deal suggest an ominous failure to take back control

So, a deal has been done.

Last night Theresa May began to see Cabinet ministers one by one – as she will continue to do this morning – before a proper “crunch” meeting of the full Cabinet at 2pm this afternoon where the Prime Minister will seek their backing for what has been negotiated. But before then, of course, she will have to face the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions at midday.

After the Cabinet has met, it is expected that the Prime Minister will give a press conference and the document – now said to run to 500 pages – will be published for all the world to see, along with a much shorter draft future framework document. And if the Cabinet endorses the document, then we can expect swift moves to arrange an emergency EU summit for the end of next week – Sunday 25th November is being suggested – after which it will be put to MPs in early December in advance of the European Council meeting taking place on 13th-14th December.

But right at this moment we are in a slightly odd position: the deal has not formally been published and no government minister has gone onto TV or radio since yesterday afternoon to explain what is in it, let alone begin trying to sell it. So all we are able to do at this juncture is piece together what has leaked to various outlets, where the focus has been, unsurprisingly, on the terms of the Irish backstop, which would come into effect in 2021 after a two-year transition period.

Last night The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn tweeted that it will involve a UK-wide customs union, crucially with “no backstop end date or time limit”. This suggests that UK membership of the customs union could be never-ending, although he seemed to suggest that the EU plan for a border in the Irish Sea had been dropped.

However, the Telegraph suggests that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has told the Cabinet that Northern Ireland will be in a “different regulatory regime” under the customs backstop and “subject to EU law and institutions”.

The Times this morning also reports that Theresa May has agreed that Northern Ireland “must remain more closely aligned to EU regulations in some areas than the rest of the UK” while also conceding that the entire UK should be tied to EU rules “in areas such as state aid and environmental and workers’ rights protections during the backstop”.

The paper also carries the leak of a note from Michel Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, to European ambassadors, that this latter concession would be used as the basis of the future relationship with the EU. Her leaked note stated that Britain would: 

“have to swallow a link between access to products and fisheries in future agreements… We should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship. They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules.”

Needless to say, this all sounds pretty horrific and last night there was no shortage of critics. European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said that “white flags have gone up all over Whitehall” and that it was “a betrayal of the Union”:

“If what we have heard is true, this fails to meet the Conservative Party manifesto and it fails to meet many of the commitments that the Prime Minister makes. It would keep us in the customs union and de facto the single market. This is the vassal state. It is a failure of the Government’s negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom.”

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described it as “vassal state stuff” in an interview with the BBC (watch here):

“For the first time in a thousand years, this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country. It is a quite incredible state of affairs. For the first time since partition, Dublin – under these proposals – would have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London. I don’t see how you can support it from a democratic point of view, I don’t see how unionists can support it, and I don’t see how you can support it if you believe in the economic and political freedom of this country.”

Nigel Dodds – the deputy leader of the DUP on whose votes Theresa May relies for her working Commons majority – said that the deal as reported would leave Northern Ireland “subject to the rules and laws set in Brussels with no democratic input or any say… We object to that on constitutional grounds that our laws would be made in Brussels, not in Westminster or Belfast. That is the fundamental red line.”

His party leader, Arlene Foster, added:

“It would be democratically unacceptable for Northern Ireland trade rules to be set by Brussels.  Northern Ireland would have no representation in Brussels and would be dependent on a Dublin government speaking up for our core industries. I am heartened by friends of the Union on both sides of the House and across the United Kingdom who have pledged to stand with the DUP in opposing a deal which weakens the Union and hands control to Brussels rather than Parliament. These are momentous days and the decisions being taken will have long-lasting ramifications.”

Meanwhile, there was a thumbs-down from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said:

“From what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country. Labour has been clear from the beginning that we need a deal to support jobs and the economy – and that guarantees standards and protections. If this deal doesn’t meet our six tests and work for the whole country, then we will vote against it.”

And the Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said “a majority will be hard or impossible to secure for what she has come up with”.

As I say, all these reactions are based on speculation rather than a reading of the proposal, but the signs are clearly ominous about its failure to deliver on the promises to take back control that were fundamental to the Brexit vote – and indeed manifesto commitments made by the Conservative Party last year. All eyes will now be on which, if any, ministers conclude that they are unable to give their backing to the deal and quit the Government in order to oppose it.