I’ve been passed copies of media briefing notes prepared for the junior Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng, who this morning did a round of TV and radio interviews. My source is a political one, not another hack or media person, which I point out to prevent any suspicion that a media company is behaving badly by passing me the document.
What is striking – and important – is that Kwarteng has been instructed, presumably by Downing Street, to avoid saying that MPs face a choice between backing the PM’s deal and a no-deal Brexit, even though that is how the PM and the EU’s president Donald Tusk seemed to be framing the choice yesterday.
Expecting to be asked in interviews that it’s “no-deal if you lose MV3 [a third meaningful vote on the PM’s deal]”, Kwarteng is told to reply “you’re getting ahead of yourselves”.
Elsewhere in the note, headed “top lines and Q&A” it says that if MPs reject the PM’s deal again, “MPs will have to decide how to proceed”. There is no suggestion that a no-deal Brexit is the automatic consequence.
In other words, the document rather poo-poos the idea that MPs face a straightforward binary choice between her deal and no-deal – and that rather reduces the jeopardy for them if, as I understand, a majority of them still expect to reject her plan next week.
That said, Kwarteng is told to signal what many would see as the scary prospect of no-deal looming if the EU does not agree a Brexit delay by the end of the weekend. In the note’s suggested reply to a question about whether no-deal contingencies - called “Operation Yellowhammer” - would be “stood up on Monday if no new date has been agreed”, he is told to say: “The civil service has been preparing for a no-deal scenario for over two years” and “the legal default remains that we will leave without a deal on 29th March if nothing else is agreed”.
Kwarteng is told to expect to be asked whether the government has “a plan to bribe the DUP” to win the belated support for the Brexit deal of that Northern Ireland party’s 10 MPs. The suggested answer is “this isn’t about money it’s about political assurance”.
The note then confirms talks on the so-called Stormont Lock, which “even if we have to enter the backstop [the post-Brexit insurance policy for keeping open the border on the island of Ireland]”, would have the “clear intention to avoid growing differences in regulatory approach between Northern Ireland and Great Britain”.
But to be clear, the document makes clear the government cannot meet the DUP’s basic demand, of cast-iron, legally watertight assurances of no new regulatory border being created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland because “the EU have been clear that the deal on the table is the only deal available”.
What’s the suggested answer to a question about why David Lidington told MPs that a short extension would be “downright reckless” without the option of a longer one – given that May now says she won’t countenance a long delay?
Well apparently he wasn’t saying what the whole world thinks he was saying. Instead “the point he was making is that a short extension without a clear proposal would be reckless – but what we are seeking is a short extension in order to ratify the deal”.
And how messy would it be if next week MPs don’t take the 29 March exit date out of UK legislation, the EU Withdrawal Act, by amending it via a statutory instrument? Well very messy it seems: “Contradictory provisions would apply both EU rules and new UK rules simultaneously” and that “would cause severe uncertainty for citizens and business from 11pm on 29 March”.
What is there to say about the idea the PM planted at prime minister’s questions yesterday that she would quit if Brexit is delayed longer than 30 June? Well the authorised answer to that is “the prime minister has made the argument for a shorter extension because she believes that’s the best way of seeing the deal ratified” and “she is not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30th June”.
That’s the kind of obfuscation that doesn’t really say any more than what she is prepared to do – but implies nothing at all about how she would react if MPs and the EU went above her head to agree a longer Brexit postponement.
So how was Kwarteng supposed to respond if asked whether the PM is “blaming everyone but herself” for the Brexit mess – William Hague said on my show last night it represented the greatest failure by parliament and government for 200 or 300 years? “People in the country are frustrated and she has every right as the PM to address those frustrations directly and set out the Government’s position,” the note informs him.
I am not sure that will placate the many MPs, including Tory ones, such as Phillip Lee on my show last night, who are outraged by what they perceive as the PM attempting to transfer on to them a mess they see as of her own creation.
As for the notion that the EU is becoming frustrated with the UK, the note insists that “there remains goodwill” and points Kwarteng to Tusk saying yesterday that “’we cannot give up seeking – until the very last moment – a positive solution’”.
So there you have it. Next time you hear a minister on the radio or TV, you’ll know that a significant proportion of what they see is seriously scripted.