Brexit Bulletin: Ready to Burst

(Bloomberg) -- Today in Brexit: Pressure is mounting as May works to squeeze her Brexit deal through Parliament.

We’re in another of those Brexit pressure-cooker moments where tension builds stealthily under the surface, ready to blow at any time.

In Westminster, the quiet period is being used to work out how Theresa May gets the withdrawal agreement through Parliament on March 12. That’s now seen as a possibility, particularly as the Conservatives’ most hardened pro-Brexit members appear to be softening their stance. “If you squint a little, you can glimpse the distant sign of a deal passing,” writes Philip Collins in the Times.

The optimism isn’t shared in Brussels. European Union officials and diplomats gave up a long time ago trying to second-guess British politics. Brexit gloom has firmly set in on the European side of the Brexit divide. And the prime minister’s standing among her European peers has plummeted since November.

European diplomats lament May’s inability to sell the original November deal, even after telling fellow EU leaders she was happy with it. That was compounded, they say, by her support for parliamentary amendments to renegotiate it, even though she must have known they had no hope of getting EU backing.

As both sides limp to the finish line (maybe), work continues in Brussels on drafting new language for May to tempt MPs with. It won’t contradict the deal but will aim to allow British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to change his legal advice, which previously said that the U.K. could be trapped permanently in the “backstop” arrangement that prevents a hard Irish border.

But there’s no full-scale negotiation going on between two large teams like there was before November. As the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said in Austria yesterday: “We have finished our work.” The U.K.’s chief negotiator, Olly Robbins, also appeared cheerful and relaxed on this week’s trip to a summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

But get ready for the pressure cooker blowing, maybe not long after this time next week, when the EU prepares to reveal what concessions over the deal it’s ready to give.

Today’s Must-Reads

  • Can Theresa May really get the deal through Parliament? We’ve crunched the numbers (again) to see if she could do it, and how.
  • In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens writes of the “horrifying thought” that May could succeed. He thinks Parliament should vote for a lengthy delay instead.
  • Meanwhile, in the Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson profiles prominent pro-Brexit Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg and argues that “Moggism” is the future of British politics.

Brexit in Brief

Fearing the Worst | Some of the U.K.’s most vital public services aren’t prepared for the worst-case Brexit scenarios, according to the Mayor of London. Sadiq Khan will chair a special advisory group meeting today to review contingency plans with chiefs of emergency services, Britain’s National Health Service, and other city officials expected to attend. 

Another Departure | George Eustice, a pro-Brexit minister, resigned over May’s move to allow Parliament to delay the divorce to avoid a no-deal. “I fear the developments this week will lead to a sequence of events culminating in the EU dictating the terms of any extension requested and the final humiliation of our country,” he wrote to the prime minister. “We cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless we are prepared to walk through the door,” he said.

Naughty Neighbors | Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said some in the U.K. don’t understand why Ireland “won’t help them out” on Brexit, and raised the prospect of an extension until June or July. In an interview with Newstalk radio, Varadkar said Ireland is an “independent” nation, and has chosen a “better” path than the U.K. 

Staying Away | Net migration to Britain from other EU countries is at its lowest level in a decade. EU citizens arriving in the U.K. outnumbered those leaving by just 57,000 in the 12 months through September, the least since 2009 and half the number recorded a year earlier, the Office for National Statistics said. Overall net migration, including from non-EU countries, was little changed at 283,000.

Betting Higher | The pound rally — which has already pushed sterling to its highest since July — has further to go, according to Goldman Sachs Group. An increasing number of foreign investors who hedged sterling since the June 2016 Brexit vote need to reduce those positions and that will mean continued support for the pound, Goldman’s market strategy chiefs told clients at a conference in Sydney.

Fish War | Northern Irish politicians blasted the Irish government in a row over fishing rights, saying a “warship” had seized two trawlers. Two Northern Ireland trawlers have been impounded by an Irish Navy ship, the Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said in a statement. “Despite the Voisinage Agreement to have reciprocal fishing arrangements, the Irish have never enacted any legislation to give legal effect to the agreement,” Dodds said.

Referendum Plan | The opposition Labour party is moving toward a compromise plan that would allow May’s Brexit deal to pass but make clear that Parliament “withholds support” until it has been put to a public vote, the Guardian reports.

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