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Theresa May’s hopes of getting cabinet to sign off on the UK’s Brexit negotiating position have hit a last-minute stumbling block. The question now is whether this can be overcome quickly, or whether it is the prelude to a serious rebellion in her cabinet.

Mrs May had been hoping to convene a cabinet meeting late on Thursday to agree the UK’s final position on Brexit.

But as the FT reports, the meeting has been pushed back to the weekend and maybe Monday, while ministers examine what the draft says about the customs backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Mrs May and the EU have agreed that in the period between the end of the standstill transition and the conclusion of a comprehensive trade deal, there will be an all-UK customs backstop.

This is an insurance policy that would see the UK in effect remaining in a customs union to help guarantee an invisible border across Ireland.

But Brexiter ministers want to know whether the UK would ever be able to leave this arrangement of its own free will, and they want Geoffrey Cox, the attorney-general, to provide them with full (and published) legal advice on the matter.

The question of whether the UK can leave this arrangement has become totemic for the Brexiters. As James Forsyth writes in the Spectator (paywall), the UK today has the sovereign right to leave the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. But Brexiters fear the backstop will create an open-ended international legal obligation for the UK:

“This would mean that the UK couldn’t simply renounce the backstop or give notice to quit. Rather, it would have to hope that the proposed ‘joint review mechanism’ would allow the UK to leave it. To put it another way, this would be like the UK having to go to arbitration before invoking Article 50. The UK would not have the sovereign right to simply quit the backstop.”

Brexiters in cabinet are also concerned that the backstop arrangement would require the UK to maintain a “level playing field” with EU rules and regulations, at least until a final trade deal is done. As the Times reports (paywall), Chris Grayling, transport secretary, “is understood to have told Mrs May he was concerned this ‘would mean a single market through the backdoor’.”

The problem for Brexiters is that their room for manoeuvre is completely spent. We have reached the point where, if they block progress on the negotiation, a November summit to clinch a deal cannot be held and that would be a big shift in the direction of a no-deal outcome.

But the Brexiters in cabinet are also coming to realise that, through sheer lack of preparation, “no deal” is no longer a viable option and they are in effect snookered. This is the significance of the comment by Dominic Raab last night when he confirmed that the choice of goods available to buy in British shops would be hit unless the UK maintains frictionless trade at the French border.

As the Brexit Secretary said (reported by Jack Blanchard in the Politico London Playbook): “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.”

(Incidentally, the huge significance of the Dover-Calais strait for UK trade was brought out in graphic detail on page 12 of this Institute for Government report some 14 months ago.)

Much now depends on what Mr Cox says in his legal judgment on the review mechanism. But according to one Whitehall official, the likelihood is that the cabinet will give the go-ahead to the backstop and the final negotiating position early next week.

The much bigger problem for Mrs May is what happens on the Commons vote.

Hard Brexiters like David Davis will argue that the backstop is a major surrender of UK sovereignty, and that Britain should contemplate leaving the EU with no deal.

Pro-Europeans like Dominic Grieve will also argue that Mrs May’s deal will leave the UK “subservient to the EU — and it should therefore be put to the British people.

Mrs May can get her Brexit negotiating position through cabinet. But in the Commons the numbers look very tight.

Further reading

MPs need information for this vote to be truly meaningful

“The current political row over whether the government should publish the attorney-general’s legal advice reveals an important truth about the meaningful vote. For parliament to make an informed choice over whether to accept the government’s Brexit deal, it will need the government to supply full and detailed analysis on the deal’s potential legal and constitutional implications — not just that which comes from the attorney-general’s pen, or the pens of his civil servants.” (Dr Jack Simson Caird, senior research fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, in The Times — paywall)

What would it take for even impartial people like me to back Mrs May’s Brexit deal?

“However MPs vote, they will be voting for uncertainty. Either the profound and no doubt highly stressful uncertainty of the looming cliff edge or the next referendum campaign. Or that of a Brexit deal that guarantees little about the future other than that Brexit will drag on for many years to come.” (Anand Menon of The UK in a Changing Europe, in The Telegraph — paywall)

Brexit is served — and neither option is palatable

“The disruption caused by no deal would be temporary, but a bad Brexit deal could linger for years, destabilising and defiling British politics. There are no great Brexit options any more, the UK government has played its hand too badly for that. But May must make sure that the backstop doesn’t turn out to be worse than no deal at all.” (James Forsyth in The Spectator — paywall)

Hard numbers

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The pub chain JD Wetherspoon issued a profit warning on Wednesday in a further sign of how rising wages are starting to erode corporate profitability in the UK.

Salaries have finally started to rise in the UK after years of stagnation. Wage growth reached its highest level since the financial crisis in the three months to the end of August, with average weekly earnings, excluding bonuses, 3.1 per cent higher than a year earlier.

The rate of wage growth was the fastest since the recession that followed the financial crisis in 2008, and the first time the headline rate of pay growth has been higher than 3 per cent in a decade.

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