Spare a thought for David Davis over the bank holiday weekend. As revellers descend on Notting Hill Carnival on Monday, the Brexit Secretary will be at the negotiating table in Brussels for the third round of Brexit talks. With the EU 27 adamant that trade talks can only begin once progress has been made on the other issues, the focus will be on the Brexit ‘divorce bill’, the rights of EU nationals, and the Irish border.
Given how uphill talks have been so far, the expectation in Whitehall is that this could be a bad-tempered outing for both sides. Michel Barnier – the EU’s chief negotiator – is expected to, once again, ask Davis to say how the UK proposes to calculate its financial obligations to the EU. But Davis is unlikely to play ball unless Barnier explains the costing behind his side’s estimate – which is thought to be around the £66bn mark.
Speaking on the Today programme, Boris Johnson said that while the UK would meet its obligations relating to the so-called Brexit bill, ‘not a penny more, not a penny less, of what we think our legal obligations amount to’ would be spent. What that means in practise is unclear. Asked about his previous comment that the EU could ‘go whistle’ over the bill, the Foreign Secretary explained that was only in reference to ‘very large sums of money’.
However, what the public see as ‘very large sums of money’ could vary greatly from the Cabinet view. An ICM poll in April found that 64 per cent of voters would regard a £10bn payment as unacceptable. This is one of the reasons Davis wanted to talk trade at the same time as these preliminary issues. If it can be made to look as though the bill is accompanied by a prosperous new trade agreement then it may become more palatable to voters. With Barnier’s team unlikely to budge on the timeline for talks, Davis may well need to look for a new way to sell the bill to the public. As he said himself this week, the clock is ticking.