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11 December 2017

Is the Brexit agreement already starting to come unstuck?

The problem is that dealing with a crisis in the United Kingdom may re-start one in Brussels.

By Stephen Bush

Well, that didn’t take long: the Conservative agreement on the terms of the government’s accord with the European Commission ends the weekend looking a little bit frayed.

Theresa May will attempt to settle nerves in the Commons today, as she reassures her backbenchers that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, or, in other words: it might sound like you don’t like the agreement now, but trust me, it’ll all be worth it when phase two – the talks on the broad outline of the trade deal that the United Kingdom and the European Union will eventually strike – rolls around.

The problem is that dealing with a crisis in the United Kingdom may re-start one in Brussels. Remarks like the PM’s today – or David Davis’s or Michael Gove’s at the weekend, where both of them nudged and winked that perhaps the agreement to align with the EU in order to prevent a hard border wasn’t quite as much of an agreement as it looked – reassure nervous Brexiteer ultras. They also irritate and discomfort May’s European counterparts.

Three-year-old children are bad at hiding as they believe that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them, and a worryingly large chunk of the British political class appears to believe that because they can’t read French or German or Polish, European politicians can’t read English. This isn’t true, of course. (Some discerning European politicians even read Morning Call.)

So there’s the remote but not impossible chance that what May hopes will be reassuring noises in Westminster end up kiboshing the agreement at the European Council later this week. More likely, however, is that amid much rolling of eyes, a deal will be reached.

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The more worrying sign as far as Downing Street’s hopes of a positive outcome to the talks go is that there is still a lot to do, and the signs of distress from the Conservative car suggest that it may not see out the journey, not least because the next phase – sorry to be a stuck record – isn’t about completing a trade deal but laying out the foundations and the shape of the final destination and the terms of the transition.

Because at the moment, Conservative unity rests on the notion that the British government has got one over on the European Commission (they haven’t), and that at the eleventh hour the UK will be able to wheel out more concessions (we won’t), or that any agreement can be easily and painlessly unpicked at our end without losing out on market access (it can’t).

If that illusion is dispelled in October 2018, when the agreement is all in place and the pro-soft Brexit majority in the Commons is the only hurdle May has to worry about clearing, that’s fine. If the wake-up call comes in February 2018, phase two could be even more difficult for Downing Street than phase one.