This week saw several headlines to the effect that Liz Truss seems optimistic about reaching an agreement with the European Union over the Northern Irish Protocol, amidst a general effort on both sides to treat her taking up the baton from David Frost as a ‘reset’.
But whilst it might be difficult to imagine her predecessor ever having been photographed cheerily bumping elbows with Maroš Šefčovič, her Brussels counterpart, others in Government seem much more pessimistic.
They told me that the change in tone may simply be a product of the fact that meetings are once again being held in person, although they do credit the EU negotiator with seeming to be keener on an agreement than before.
Yet the fundamental structural barriers to a settlement remain. Šefčovič insists that he will not negotiate outside the EU’s mandate, and that Brussels will not re-open that mandate, the terms of which are incompatible with the UK’s stated negotiating objectives.
So what’s the deal, no pun intended?
One possible explanation is that the Foreign Secretary is actually sticking to the Frost playbook. A key plank of his approach was making every possible effort to find a negotiated settlement in order to bolster Britain’s position in the event that Article 16 is triggered, an event my sources pessimistically predict will still likely prove necessary if the Government sticks to its guns.
Indeed, it has been put to me that one reason that the UK seemed to walk back from its more aggressive stance in the closing months of last year was that Frost judged that the talks were not yet in the right place.
This would also fit with the theory I outlined earlier this month: that as a leading contender for the party leadership in the event that Boris Johnson is forced out, there are more political incentives for Truss to take a muscular line on Northern Ireland than ever there were for a peer such as Frost.
Council seats in Scotland and Wales should not be accepted as collateral damage for ‘partygate’
In discussions about the Prime Minister’s future, the upcoming local elections tend to loom large. In the event that he hasn’t resigned by then, this is the point often cited as the likely trigger for a vote of no confidence.
The thinking is logical enough. If Johnson’s ratings are still underwater in May, it will demonstrate that the damage wrought by his succession of largely self-inflicted scandals is not a mere passing phase, and that MPs really will have to act if they want a fighting chance at the next election.
Summer is also, in some ways, a much better time to have a leadership contest than at present. Covid and other pressures on the NHS will most likely be in abeyance; so too will at least the energy dimension of the cost-of-living crisis, as the need for household heating diminishes; Parliament won’t be sitting. Cabinet ministers will be able to stump up and down the country without Labour being able to accuse them of neglecting their posts.
And as Harry Phibbs recently pointed out, the party’s exposure in the upcoming contests is actually quite limited in some respects, potentially limiting the fallout.
However, Tory MPs should be wary of basing their decision on such Anglo-centric reasoning. The Party’s exposure in Scotland and Wales, which also have local elections, is much greater. As Matt Singh explains, the seats coming up there were last fought in 2017, at the height of Theresa May’s imperium – a very strong year for the Conservatives.
Given that the recent spat with Douglas Ross has sent another forlorn bolt of electricity through the zombie plan to split off the Scottish Conservatives, the national party has a responsibility to ensure that it values every British council as much as any other.