Following Theresa May and Jean Claude Junker’s press conference to announce that no deal has been reached (yet), Tory MPs were summoned to the Committee room corridor to be given a briefing on the progress – or lack there of. Only the meeting’s organisers, Gavin Barwell and Steven Baker, didn’t appear to have all that much to say – telling MPs that both sides were working hard to iron out the final issues holding up ‘sufficient progress’. Or, as one MP puts it, ‘what we were told is nothing has been agreed and nothing has been ruled out’. One Tory walked out with their hands in the air – though a more cheery attendee describes it as a ‘positive’ meeting with progress expected to come soon.
As cheery as one may be, the issue causing the government undeniable gloom is the Irish border. It’s clear that this has been a major sticking point – but it’s not clear how No 10 plans to solve it while keeping the DUP and its own MPs on side. Several Tories at the meeting say they were given the impression that tensions over the Irish border solution were exacerbated this morning by leaks to the Irish press suggesting a greater UK concession than had been made.
The most important point was made by Theresa Villiers. The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland addressed the elephant in the room: is it acceptable for one part of the United Kingdom to have different trading rules than the rest of it? Barwell avoided answering the question – though tellingly this is one issue on which arch-Brexiteers and arch-Remainers can agree. Both think the answer is no – it’s just the Remain side believe the solution is staying in the customs union and the Brexit side think a solution could be ‘no deal’. Aside from Ireland, there was a suggestion that there are still a few niggles over the role of the ECJ on citizens’ rights.
MPs in the meeting room describe the atmosphere as being friendly – even if there are serious concerns over the answers to the remaining problems. It’s notable that at the end, Richard Graham – a former Remainer – suggested the whips start canvassing over ‘no deal’ as if Brussels keep this up then they could be left with no other option. If that does become a likely option, expect the next meeting to be a lot more lively.