A blanket of snow settled over Northern Ireland this morning. But it was the thaw in relations between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels that caused the flurry of excitement as they met for their pre-dawn announcement of a Brexit breakthrough. David Davis gave Juncker a bear-hug, Juncker’s aide tweeted an (unwittingly Papist?) joke about puffs of white smoke and everyone smiled over the breakfast croissants. Then May and Juncker stepped blinking into the limelight of a press conference.
Our snap verdict was HERE. Like all grown-up diplomatic deals, this one allows all sides to declare victory. With the key players wanting to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit, mutual self-interest kept the show on the road and ensures next week’s EU summit will be portrayed as a success. Yet while May said there had been ‘give and take on both sides’, critics will argue that she gave up too much in order to effectively park the thorny issues of the Irish border and what kind of free trade deal we want.
Foster’s most telling remark this morning was that while she was happy with the “six substantive changes” to the original text, there were “still matters there that we would have liked to see clarified…but the PM has decided to go to Brussels”. That was a rare clue that May had put her foot down and said she couldn’t delay any longer, but also proof that the EU’s hard deadline of Sunday night had forced the issue. The DUP issued a further statement hinting their approval was highly conditional: “We cautioned the Prime Minister about proceeding with this agreement in its present form”.
A whole new theological discussion will now focus on this phrase “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union”. Some Brexiteers seem to think it is elastic enough not to cause problems, others will share the DUP’s fears and fear a long-term ‘soft Brexit’ con. On Today, Michael Gove insisted he was happy with it, even declaring “Theresa May won”. But those DUP worries may well be reflected by other Tory MPs who fear today’s classic EU fudge may end up rotting the PM’s teeth.
Not all Brexiteers are over the moon about the continued role for the European Court of Justice in EU citizens’ rights either. Theresa Villiers told the BBC she’d have been happier if ‘that wasn’t in there’, though Gove hailed an eight-year ‘time-limited’ deal where an independent commission of British judges could refer cases up to the ECJ.
Many of the big issues remain unresolved. And EU council president Donald Tusk had the most ominous warnings for Tory MPs. “The UK has asked for a transition of about two years while remaining part of the single market and customs union,” he claimed. That request, if accurately stated, sounded exactly like Labour’s policy. Tusk added the UK would have to “respect the whole of EU law, including new law…budgetary commitments..judicial oversight”. Crucially, the UK would have no say in any decisions during this period. Yes, that’s the Norway option.
Will Brexiteer Tory MPs really stand for Britain continuing to be EU ‘rule-takers’? “Breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relation is much harder,” Tusk opined. It’s taken 18 months just to get past first base. And as the EU council chief pointed out, the PM now has ‘de facto less than a year’ to sort out the much more difficult stuff of trade and transition. The real tough stuff is only just starting for Theresa May. The Brexiteers’ celebratory champagne will remain on ice for now.
Boris Johnson has jetted out to the Middle East this morning and will visit Iran this weekend in a bid to secure the release of jailed British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Johnson’s trip to Tehran is only the third by a UK Foreign Secretary since 2003 and boy does he have to try and make amends over his remarks in this affair. Boris will have to love-bomb not just his Iranian foreign ministry counterpart but somehow help him shift the views of Tehran’s hardliners.
Time is of the essence, amid reports Zaghari-Ratcliffe could appear in court again on Sunday, following threats to increase her sentence by five years after Johnson’s gaffe of claiming she was in the country to train journalists. Her husband Richard is not on the trip as he’s been advised that may not help his chances of visiting his wife in prison.
Boris won plaudits for his foreign policy speech yesterday, but in the Q&A afterwards Brexit was inevitably not far away. He had to explain his line to Tory MP Philip Hollobone that the EU could ‘go whistle’ over large divorce bill demands. Johnson said he was referring to “the very extortionate sums that I had heard, in the region of £80bn or £100bn”. Now, he and the Government were “absolutely punctilious in wanting to meet our friends more than halfway”. Which sounds like at least £40bn to me. Boris added: “It is nowhere near the sums that I was first invited to comment on, in a musical way”. But maybe he doth protest too much.
He may be a father of two, but Ed Miliband has declared ‘I’m not a Centrist Dad’. Appearing on a special HuffPost Commons People podcast, the former Labour leader joked that no one could apply the label (used to describe moderate middle-aged blokes who patronise young Corbyn supporters) to himself.
The host of own weekly podcast, Reasons To Be Cheerful, Miliband told us just why he let rip on Twitter this week with his ‘piss up in a brewery’ outburst about Brexit (one Cabinet minister told him his verdict was remarkably ‘restrained’). He also reveals he turned down an invitation to appear on the Great British Bake-Off and rejected a request to appear in a Walkers’ Crisps advert with Gary Lineker. Or as he puts it: “I tend to lay off the celebrity doo-dah, sort of thingummies… .I think it’s a direct route to humiliation actually.”
Miliband heaped praise on Jeremy Corbyn for ‘galvanising’ young voters in the last election. Momentum, of course, helped drive that new engagement and more than few centrist dads were couldn’t resist seizing yesterday on the new Electoral Commission investigation into its alleged breaches of campaign spending finance rules. The group insists the admin errors were to blame, but critics suspect there’s a lot more to be unearthed.
Primark and Sports Direct have had to pay thousands of pounds back to staff for paying them below the minimum wage. Both cut-price retailers were among 260 firms on the government’s ‘name and shame’ list for paying their staff below the legal limit. Primark had to repay £232,000 mainly due to charging staff for uniforms. Sports Direct, and two staff agencies it used, had to pay back a total of £1.1m to their workers, mainly for making them use staff time for security checks at a warehouse.
It’s cold out there, in case you hadn’t noticed. And Labour thinks the chill winds of a possible winter crisis in the NHS have already been felt. It has a new analysis of the first two weeks of NHS England winter data (20th November to 3rd December) that reveals 20,818 patients suffered ‘handover delays’ at hospital – ie they were stuck in the back of ambulances for over 30 minutes. The Times separately claims that the Budget’s entire £350m extra for this winter will be blown entirely on new drugs costs by the end of this month.