After the long summer recess, it was back to school for Dominic Raab and Olly Robbins as they appeared together before the European Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday. The meeting couldn’t be described as ideal timing for either thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances. With the government’s Brexit plan slammed by Brexiteers and Remainers alike, Raab and Robbins – the Government’s two most senior negotiators – had to defend a plan which has been heralded as less popular than the poll tax.
The second underlying tension of yesterday’s meeting was the tricky relationship between the Brexit Secretary and the PM’s Europe advisor. Only two weeks after Raab was appointed in July, Theresa May delivered a written statement to the Commons, saying that she would lead negotiations with the EU with Raab ‘deputising’. It confirmed a sentiment which had been lurking around Westminster: Olly Robbins is the boss.
In the committee meeting, neither could be described as a picture of calm. Almost all the questions were directed at Robbins. In a flinty tone, Raab – the so-called Brexit Secretary – addressed Bill Cash, Chairman of the committee: ‘First of all, Mr Chairman, I think as a matter of constitutional principle, all the political questions you should give me a chance to answer first.’
Here are the main takeaways from the session:
- Common rulebook was not discussed with Cabinet before Chequers
Despite the Brexit Secretary’s early protestations, the PM’s advisor provided two politically-focused revelations. Speaking to David Jones, a Conservative member of the committee, Robbins admitted that the meeting at Chequers was the first time the Cabinet had discussed a common rulebook. To Brexiteers, this was the most contentious part of the proposal, and they feared it had been purposefully ‘bounced’ on them to force an agreement.
2. Chequers proposals were put to the EU before Cabinet
In a similar disclosure, Robbins hinted that the Chequers plan was revealed to the EU before the Cabinet met to discuss it. He said:
‘What I don’t want to do is say to you no idea that eventually appeared in the White Paper had ever been mentioned to somebody on the other side of this negotiation before, because it wouldn’t be good advice for ministers if we gave them no indication whatsoever at all whether ideas were acceptable.’
This will also infuriate Brexit-supporting MPs. They have always feared the PM’s inner circle of advisors have been too close with the EU negotiators, and have shunted them out of the process by making vague promises in Parliament. It looks like they were right.
3. Raab rebutted ‘Canada Plus’
Raab offered a technical rebuttal to critics of the Chequers proposal. To those advocating a so-called ‘Canada Plus’ deal (a trading arrangement allegedly backed by David Davis which would see reduced tariffs for limited market access), he suggested they read the ‘small print’ of the EU’s proposed backstop, which could put the Irish border in an indefinite ‘limbo period’. This is a point of genuine disagreement.
Proponents of ‘Canada Plus’ – some of whom sit on the committee – do not see the border as an issue. Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, called it ‘nonsense’, but like many others, was unable to go articulate much further than: we won’t put up a border, and neither will the EU. They believe that there is already an economic border in Ireland, one which manages different VAT and excise duties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Crucially, however, there has been no definite estimation of the infrastructure needed to administrate this sort of relationship. Helpful, right? On Tuesday, City AM revealed that Davis is soon to publish a 140-page alternative Brexit plan, which could clear this up.
4. ‘Les propositions sont mort’
The most memorable interaction of the session was between Raab and Stephen Kinnock. The Labour MP recounted a private conversation between himself and Barnier, and alleged that the chief EU negotiator said of Chequers: ‘Les propositions sont mort’. The Brexit Secretary, taken aback, replied that he did not believe Barnier would have spoken in such a careless manner. Yesterday evening, the Frenchman’s advisor, Stefaan De Rynck tweeted:
‘On Monday at the @CommonsEUexit in Brussels @michelbarnier actually said in no uncertain terms that Chequers has positive elements, w/ reference to security & foreign policy and to an FTA as a common denominator for the economic partnership after #Brexit.’
It is a further sign that Chequers is less ‘mort’, more ‘le minimum’.