Compared with some other key leaders, Theresa May’s position is looking remarkably stable for a change as she flies into Brussels today for what’s being billed in London as crucial meetings with EU leaders including Council president Donald Tusk. The Westminster lobby is reporting that she’ll be taking soundings over whether a British offer of a bigger divorce bill – £40 billion is being mentioned off the record – would be enough to persuade EU leaders to allow Brexit talks to move on to trade talks at the full summit next month.
The big question of the moment is whether key figures such as Angela Merkel, in the throes of complex negotiations over her own and Germanys’ political future, and Leo Varadkar plunged into sudden crisis, will be in any position to take risks with the Commission’s three conditions for moving on. On the face of it this looks unlikely. She’s unlikely to be able to exploit others’ weakness. When in doubt, politicians tend to go to default and that default remains unfavourable to the prime minister. The best she might hope for in the coming weeks is a postponement of any final EU verdict on the three conditions. But that won’t stop the Article 50 clock.
The Irish Times online is changing its front page continuously. to reflect the turmoil.
Senior Government figures are toying with the idea of holding a general election on the same day as a crucial European Union summit that will decide if Brexit talks should proceed to the next phase.
Such a scenario would see the dramatic prospect of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar flying home from Brussels to vote in his Dublin West constituency after deciding if there is “sufficient progress” for the talks to proceed to the next phase.
The European Council meets in Brussels to take the decision – billed as hugely significant by the Government and Opposition – on December 14th and 15th, and Mr Varadkar could wield an Irish veto if he deems that the Border issue has not been sufficiently death with.
However, one senior figure told The Irish Times an election could be held on Friday, December 15th.
This would mean the Dáil would be dissolved early next week by Mr Varadkar.
An alternative would be an election a week later, in the run up to Christmas Day.
There is no indication at all of a specific plan for an election date, however. Senior Fianna Fáil figures are increasingly resigned to a poll, with one senior source saying an election is “98.5 per cent certain.
In the present febrile atmosphere Irish unity is bound to feature in debate, however spuriously. The Irish News quotes foreign minister Simon Coveney aspiring to unity in his lifetime. Arlene Foster noticed and slapped him down in a radio interview this morning in advance of the DUP annual conference. In the Newsletter Sam McBride is heralding the event with a big fanfare.
For an event which would normally attract about 40 media personnel from Belfast and Dublin, this year the party has accredited about 200 journalists, photographers and other media personnel – among them Robert Peston, Laura Kuenssberg and Faisal Islam, three of the biggest beasts of the Westminster lobby.
The Dublin government however is likely to be ultra careful on the unity question along the lines quoted here, despite many attempts to trip them up in an election campaign, when officials like Rory Montgomery will trying to steady the ship.
The Government had to be “very careful” not to take nationalist or unionist sides over the future of the Border given how debate in Northern Ireland tends to be viewed “through an orange-green prism, he said, but the focus should be on discussing the practical benefit of avoiding barriers “of whatever kind”.
“All this makes it tricky and problematic but we do think that there are pathways forward. We are hopeful that we can get there in the next two or three weeks,” he said.
The absence of a devolved government in Belfast was “extremely unfortunate” within the wider negotiations, he said, as Belfast was missing out on discussions with the Scottish and Welsh on what powers would be repatriated from Brussels to London post-Brexit and on to the devolved administrations.
“The total absence of a Belfast voice from that discussion is really close to unforgivable.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London