|Fame is fleeting in the internet age. But you may just dimly remember Professor Robert Kelly, an expert on North Korea who was embarrassed when his children ran into the room to bother him while he was conducting a video interview with the BBC this March. I wonder if Theresa May and her Brussels point man David Davis felt a little like that today as the latter walked into the negotiating chamber with the European Commission’s Michel Barnier against a backdrop of perhaps the worst bout of public Conservative acrimony since the election result.
First it was a rash of briefings against the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, with leaked reports from a cabinet meeting where he supposedly said public sector workers were “overpaid”. On Sunday’s Marr show Mr Hammond admonished his colleagues but failed to deny their specific accusation. Oddly enough, these briefings reportedly came primarily from Remainers, showing the depth of Tory worry, almost ten years since the financial crisis, about the political viability of austerity. Then there was a second outburst in which Mr Hammond was accused of deliberately trying to frustrate Brexit and of treating pro-Leave ministers like “pirates who have taken him prisoner”.
It is a strange situation in which Mr Hammond is castigated as a Remoaner and a political liability for expressing positions which were perfect Conservative orthodoxy before 2016: for instance, that the economy is the most important underpinning of Britain’s success and that austerity must be maintained until we have reduced the deficit. But Brexiteers in cabinet clearly believe that Theresa May is their best, and perhaps their only, chance at getting us out of the EU on terms they would accept. Her pitch to be the guardian of Brexit may have flopped with the electorate but it clearly worked among some of her party. That she can only survive by finishing the job she started binds her to them in terms of shared self-interest.
Mrs May apparently intends to rebuke her cabinet at tomorrow’s meeting, but it is questionable how much authority she really has. A Tory leadership proto-contest already ongoing – witness Saturday’s story about allies of David Davis boasting of 30 MPs in the bag. But the less united the Conservatives appear, the more trouble they invite. Sure enough, Yougov now has the Conservatives on 40 per cent and Labour on 45. “Are [ministers] so complacent that they imagine Labour’s current popularity in the polls is ephemeral?” writes a furious Tom Harris, urging them to “put their country and their party before their silly little egos.
As for the second round of Brexit negotiations, not much news has emerged. “We are not going to be undertaking Article 50 negotiations here in the press room,” said the EU’s spokesman. Both parties took a businesslike, even grim tone when describing what their week would be like. We know that Mr Davis is seeking to settle four issues: the “divorce bill”, which the EU contends is entirely apolitical but which UK negotiators say is quite the opposite; the issue of EU citizens rights, which the EU fears will be reduced after Brexit; and the additional issue of which body will adjudicate on these rights after Brexit (Britain refuses to have the European Court of Justice involved, and there are signs the EU may budge on this one). But our man Peter Foster fears the pitch is being queered by the aggressive attitude of the French, who want to “disrupt and destroy” British finance and who see us as “adversaries, not partners”. It all stems, says historian RT Howard, from the relative youth and superficiality of France’s institutions compared to Britain’s centuries-old Parliament.
A press conference is expected on Thursday. Perhaps the cabinet can refrain from any more leakage until then.
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