Monday 5 March
Following last week’s coordinated attack comprised of Jeremy Corbyn’s customs union pledge, the EU’s scandalous draft treaty and Theresa May’s speech, this week, we are sifting through the rubble, looking for survivors and wary of skirmishes. The initial bombardment may be over, but more damage surely awaits. Brexit is in bad shape.
May is keeping well under the parapet. Downing Street are said to be delighted with the reception to Friday’s speech, with even Jacob Rees-Mogg heaping praise. He did, however redeem himself with this contribution on Saturday to the historic Belfast Newsletter, admirably pointing the finger at Ireland’s Eurofantic prime minister, Leo Varadkar who has caused tremendous damage.
To deflect a Brexit hungry media, May has shoved Sajid Javid into the limelight this morning with a big housing initiative. The calm will only last until 4.30 pm however, when Philip Hammond appears before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by arch-patriot, Sir Bill Cash. Hammond is there to be grilled on the outrageous EU divorce bill.
Hammond’s efforts to keep a low profile have not been helped by the EU’s uncharacteristic decision to not strike back at the prime minister over her vision for a future partnership with the failing bloc. All we have so far is a tweet from Michel Barnier welcoming the speech’s “clarity”. Rather worryingly, the EU’s chief negotiator was in Denmark on May’s big day, greasing wheel’s with local fishermen. Fisheries was just one of the areas left wide open by the PM for a massive compromise in the EU’s favour.
Mr Barnier is set to meet with Sinn Fein’s leaders later today. Now that Labour have sided with staying in the Customs Union, and therefore the Single Market (yes, Turkey is bound by almost all of the EU’s regulations with no say), in the event Mrs May presents a conventional trade deal to Parliament and less than eleven Tory MPs rebel, Sinn Fein is poised to take the unusual step of occupying their seats at Westminster to force through a customs union compromise. The media were in outrage when May negotiated a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP on the grounds “you can never trust the Ulstermen”. Barnier does exactly the same with Ulstermen who refuse to call themselves British and no-one bats an eyelid. Typical.
Back to the speech, the EU is now carefully assembling its counter-position with unusual diligence and secrecy. The response will be delivered tomorrow.
Part of the reason for the delay is yesterday’s Italian election, which promises a monumental shakeup. The campaign has been marked by searing opposition to European integration, with two of three frontrunners, Lega Nord and Five Star Movement (AKA M5S), openly defying European integration. The third, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia has already been pre-ordained Lega’s coalition partner in the event the two parties, along with the hard right, brothers of Italy manage to pass the 40% threshold and gain the right to form a government.
Should Berlusconi win more seats than Lega, due to a criminal conviction the former prime minister will be barred from regaining his crown and will nominate European Parliament President Antonio Tajani to lead his new government even though his coalition partners despise the EU.
Fortunately for them, and perhaps Berlusconi’s party, Lega Nord look set to win the larger share. According to projections, Lega have beaten Forza with 18.2% of votes, compared to 13.8%. Italian exit polls are erratic, but as things stand, the right-wing coalition (branded centre-right by the media) will gain the largest share of the vote, 34%, closely followed by the largest single party, M5S with 31.6%. Officially, Five Star eschew the right-left paradigm advocating digitally driven direct democracy. They refuse to join a coalition, however the movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo who also carries a conviction, has its roots in the left.
The avowedly pro-EU ruling social democrats, the Democratic Party are set for humiliation, just 19.4% of the vote.