Richard North, 14/11/2020  

One possible issue to emerge from the unexpected but entirely welcome goings of Cummings is the outcome of the interminable 'future relationship' talks with Brussels. Ostensibly, the absence of this brooding presence might just clear the air sufficiently to allow compromises to be made which will bring us a deal before the transition period ends.

However, a change of pace – much less policy – is denied by Downing Street, and I cannot recall reading any indications that our modern-day Svengali (as he is being called) has any great influence over David Frost, or has been personally directing the UK-EU negotiations.

Downing Street is insisting that the British negotiating team has been unaffected by the recent developments and it is always possible that the spokesperson is telling the truth. There is a first time for everything – and there is reason to think that this might be so.

Bluntly, Cummings has always displayed such a slender knowledge of the workings of Brussels, and the negotiating process (to which he is a complete stranger), that he would be totally out of his depth the moment he tried to intervene.

That is possibly one reason why he never embraced an exit plan, as hosting discussions on the issue would have exposed his pitiful grasp of the subject. Latterly, he seems to have been more interested in his agenda for civil service reform, and has never discussed publicly the nature of a post-Brexit EU-UK relationship – a telling omission, some might think.

However, in this current political environment, where the media runs off supercharged palace gossip and perceptions count for more than substance, his abrupt removal means that the impression that he is in charge of European policy (whether right or wrong) can no longer hold.

Given, also, that there has been a partial cleansing of the stables, reducing the influence of the Vote Leave caucus that infests Whitehall, Johnson will no longer get away with allowing others to carry the can for his actions (or inactions) – if that is what he has been doing.

For the first time since he became prime minster, he might find himself having to take the responsibility for his own government's policy, although there might nevertheless be a little difficulty attributing specific policies to the man as it is by no means entirely clear what they are.

It seems we are not alone in our uncertainty. Manfred Weber, the leader of European People's Party, complains of a "quite chaotic situation where we don’t have an idea what is really the line in Great Britain". Rejecting calls for what amounts to a blind compromise, he stresses that "We need a clear idea from Boris Johnson now".

That notwithstanding, as the revised Withdrawal Agreement is very much seen to be Johnson's deal, after his dramatic meeting with Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor in the Wirral in October last year, so too will this deal (if it comes) be seen as the prime minister's creation.

Whether there will be a deal is, of course, still very much in the air. Although next week's European Council was being touted as the absolute, absolute deadline, no sooner had it been established as a baseline, then we saw signs of slippage.

The latest we hear is that the 19 November isn't going to be Cinderella's "midnight moment". According to the Telegraph, the clock has been turned back and we could even be looking at 10 December, the date of the final European Council of the year.

Where this puts the European Parliament is anyone's guess, although there is hardly time to get what will be a relatively long and complex document fully translated and then through the committee system in time for the plenary session starting on 17 December.

If we hadn't already been through a last-minute rush with the Withdrawal Agreement, it would be hard to accept that the process of consent could be done in time. But experience shows that the system is a lot more flexible than one might suppose.

There is even talk of MEPs being called back after Christmas, but before the end of the year, for a special session. That I find hard to accept, not least because the transport logistics (Covid-19 notwithstanding) might be particularly bloody and, in any event, I can't see the MEPs being particularly keen about interrupting their Christmas break for a day trip to Brussels – to say nothing of the staff.

Another MEP, Philippe Lamberts – who sits on the European Parliament's Brexit committee – seems to be more optimistic about the timing, expects the negotiation to last another seven to ten days. But France's Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, is hedging his bets, talking of the negotiations requiring "several days, possibly two to three more weeks".

On the other hand, British sources are conceding that the negotiations could not go on for "much longer" than the next nine days, even though they believe there is more pressure on the EU side's timetable – despite the Westminster parliament also having to ratify the deal.

Looking at the situation in the round, though, there is a credible case that could be made for Johnson taking as much time as he can get. With the changing of the guard in the United States, any prime minister would be in the same position, having to re-assess options in the light of a change of president.

On the domestic front, it is almost certainly the case that Cummings has been a barrier between the prime minister and the parliamentary party, to the extent that Johnson – never close to MPs – is at risk of being (if not already) dangerously out of touch. It would be a sensible move for him to sound out his own backbenchers, to give him a clearer idea of where his room for compromise might lie, if indeed he has any.

As it stands, though, the issues which have been holding up the talks since they started last March have not been resolved, and there is no indication that they can be. And then there is the "elephant in the room" in the form of the IMB, where the response of the European Parliament cannot be taken for granted.

But then, this could all be academic, with The Times having Downing Street "insisting" that there will be no surrender of Johnson's red lines. But if there is no movement from him, it is hard to see whether there can be any agreement, no matter how much extra time is taken. And much the same goes for the EU, which possibly has as many constraints on its freedom of movement as Johnson.

It could well be that, rather than a deal in the offing, we are looking at each side trying to manoeuvre the other into walking away from the talks, thus claiming the right to apportion blame.

Certainly, yesterday's events – even if they might have brought the glimmer of a smile to the visage of this jaded blogger - have made the situation no easier to read, and we are still left with the clock running down and no better idea of the outcome.

In all senses, this is a battle that no one can win. It is just a question of who walks away with the least damage, and the longer it takes, the more damage there will be to both sides.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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