Brexit secretary David Davis has got his backstop date, but the language is vague
Brexit secretary David Davis has got his backstop date, but the language is vague © Getty

David Davis is not resigning from the cabinet. Not today, anyway. That is the outcome of this morning’s frantic back and forth between Theresa May and the Brexit secretary over the Irish backstop.

Downing Street has published its proposed text of the backstop and it initially seems to give ground to Mr Davis. He has got his date, but the language is quite vague. It says the UK “expects the future [trade] arrangement to be in place by the end of 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered”.

Mr Davis clearly feels he has won. He says the backstop paper “now expresses, in much more detail, the time-limited nature of our proposal”.

But whatever the detail, the fundamental problem for the UK still stands. It is hard to see how a time-limited backstop will be signed off by the EU. The Irish government will not see it as fit for purpose. Nor is it what the EU agreed to last December (as today’s Evening Standard editorial points out).

Nor does this fudge resolve the UK cabinet’s fundamental problem: ministers cannot agree what their offer to the EU of a future trade relationship should be. 

The White Paper setting out more of the government’s negotiating position has been delayed. The impasse in the row over the customs partnership versus maximum facilitation continues. The backstop debate has always been a fig leaf to cover the deeper cabinet divide. 

In the meantime, a denouement approaches. Ministers are today kicking the can down the road yet again, but parliament will this autumn have to make a judgment.

As Paul Goodman of the website Conservative Home argued this morning, the bottom line is that the UK will be paying £40bn into EU coffers and, in return, Britain will get only the smallest outline on what a future trade deal will look like. “They [the EU] take, we give,” he says.

In October, the question will be whether this is a deal that parliament can possibly accept. Pro-Europeans will argue it is much better to commit to being in the customs union or EEA. Conservative Brexiters are divided between those who want to stand and fight Mrs May’s drift to a soft Brexit, and those who think the UK should get out of the EU first and then fight their corner later.

Next week’s votes in the Commons on the EU withdrawal bill will be an important test of the mood among MPs ahead of those critical October debates. October is when the crisis will come — unless Mr Davis and other ministers decide before then that they can no longer stomach Mrs May’s drift to a soft Brexit.

Further reading

The Brexit myth of no-strings frictionless trade
“Rather than prevaricate, it is time to admit to the public that there is no magic solution which maintains frictionless trade with the EU and allows the freedom to be ‘Global Britain’.” ( Chris Giles in the FT)

If the EU won’t talk about trade, we must leave the table
“At the June EU Council we need to change the way we negotiate. We should force the issue and make clear that we must now move to trade discussions. The logic of our position is that the shape of our trading relationship defines all others. If they refuse to engage, then we must have the resolve to get up and leave the table.” (Iain Duncan Smith in The Times)

Brexiteer MPs know it’s going badly wrong but can’t agree what to do next
“It’s impossible to find a Leaver who thinks the whole process is going well. No surprise there. But the Brexiteers are divided about what to do now. They can, as one of their number explained to me, be roughly split into two camps: hedgers and ditchers.” (James Forsyth in The Spectator)

Hard numbers


Economic growth in the eurozone cooled in the first quarter to the weakest pace since mid-2016, according to figures released on Thursday that confirm a previous estimate.

Gross domestic product expanded by 0.4 per cent in the euro area in the first three months of this year, on a quarter over quarter basis, according to Eurostat’s third reading. The rate was the lowest since the third quarter of 2016.

The report highlights the eurozone’s disappointing start to 2018. Other big economies also had a tough start to the year, with growth in the US clocking in at 0.5 per cent sequentially from 0.7 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Economists had broadly forecast that growth in the eurozone would accelerate later in the year. However, second-quarter data have also underwhelmed. In Germany, for instance, factory orders unexpectedly fell in April for the fourth month in a row, marking a dreary start to the second quarter.

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