May still faces her big Brexit test

Expectations condition everything in politics.

The deal agreed by Theresa May with the European Commission on the terms of Brexit is - objectively speaking - as predicted by the former head of the Treasury, a "drive-by shooting" of the more ardent Brexiteers.

But because those Brexiteers expected not only to be shot but also to be hung, they can describe May’s agreement with Juncker as a great "achievement" - as one of their leaders, Michael Gove, precisely did this morning.

So our net divorce payments are expected to be between £35bn and £39bn. What a relief that they’re less than £50bn, which is what some in Brussels and London had been indicating they might be!

But they are still equivalent to been four and five years of our net EU budget contributions, and if that cash was available to the NHS it would do a power of good to cash-strapped hospitals.

May has agreed the divorce payments with the EC but there is more to discuss. Credit: AP

Similarly on EU migrants living here, such good news, the Brexiteers may say, that the European Court of Justice will only have sway in migrants' rights cases for eight years after the UK leaves the EU.

But let’s be clear: the leaving or "specified" date is disputed. The PM says it’s the end of March 2019. The European Commission says it could be after our still-to-be-negotiated period of "transition" after March 2019.

So if "transition" is never ending - as some Brexiteers fear it will be - the UK would be in the sway of the ECJ forever.

Or to put it another way, the ECJ "problem" has only been quarantined in a limited way. The row will now be about when we actually leave, in a legal sense - and that row within parliament will be explosive.

The 'specified' date for the UK to leave the EU is disputed. Credit: AP

Finally there is what the Brexiteering ultras are already referring to, with dread and trepidation in their voices, as Clause 49.

This is the section of Mrs May's agreement with Brussels that provides the fallback position for keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic open, in the event that it is impossible to negotiate a trade deal that would do the trick.

It says "the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which now, or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement".

Now the PM would argue that this "alignment" between the rules in the UK and EU that govern how our businesses operate is conditional on a failure to find another way to keep the border open - and it does not mean she has abandoned what many see as the whole point of Brexit, which is making our own rules and regulations in own commercial interest.

But, but, but, if that is her fall back position on how to sustain peace in Northern Ireland, doesn’t it mean she has implicitly conceded that to get maximum trade access to the EU’s single market, there will have to be permanent alignment between our rules and theirs?

Clause 49 could provide a fallback position over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Credit: AP

That is what the rest of the EU will insist on. And if "alignment" is acceptable to solve a political problem, isn’t also acceptable to solve an economic one?

Well that is the mega argument still to be had by the cabinet.

This morning it looked as though Gove had capitulated - but I assume that was a feint.

We'll know before Christmas whether he and the Brexiteers in cabinet have in fact thrown in the towel - because there will be that all important ministerial debate for the very first time in the next fortnight.

May and her ministers may never face a more important decision than what kind of trade relationship to negotiate with the EU. It will determine the UK’s future economic prospects. And it will test the cohesion of her cabinet, probably to breaking point.

No pressure on her then.