Who is in charge?

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David Davis and Michel Barnier

Image copyright
Reuters

Who is in charge? Nope, not in Number 10, although that is a fair question right now.

But in our talks with the EU? There was lots of joshing in the first official appearance of the two chief negotiators after their meetings – and red mullet and asparagus lunch – lots of “David”, “Michel” – friendly use of first names.

About charge?

Who is in charge?

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If you only looked up and glanced briefly at the screen during the first full Barnier-Davis experience, they could even have been the same man.

The exchange of gifts, the diplomatic tradition (who else gets presents when they turn up for a meeting?) and the tone of the opening of the press conference all looked friendly enough.

Who is in charge?

But as the talks get going, two aspects of the first press conference suggest the UK will be running to catch up.

First, while David Davis denied it was a defeat, the EU seems entirely to have got its way on the timing of the talks. For months UK ministers have been pushing for parallel talks where the future trade deal could be discussed at the same time as the settlement of the money, the rights of citizens and everything else.

Caved in?

It’s often compared to a divorce – the UK wanted to talk about who gets the house and the CD collection at the same time as settling who pays for the kids’ weddings in 20 years’ time.

The EU on the other hand have been firm all along that the future arrangements could only be discussed once the terms of the initial split have been agreed.

The debate was called “parallelism versus sequentialism” (I’ve written about it before here) and from this afternoon’s press conference and the announcement of the procedure it is clear that the UK has lost.

Ministers believed they would be able to persuade the EU – the failure to do so has been described as a “total cave-in”.

The discussion was even predicted by Mr Davis as likely to be the “row of the summer”. The row won’t happen because it seems the UK has already given in.

Softened tone

And right at the end of oh-so-friendly press conference, there was a not very subtle reminder from Mr Barnier about how he sees the reality of Brexit, telling reporters: “The UK has decided to leave the EU – it’s not the other way round….the consequences are substantial… I’m not in the frame of mind to make concessions or ask for them.”

He went on to say the task is to “unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations”. Blimey.

It’s understood the two men talked extensively and genuinely about the desire to be constructive and to make it work. From the first bout however, the EU held its ground and won, and has just reminded the UK how hard it may be.

Ministers had already been acknowledging privately they are likely to have to soften up at least their tone on Brexit.

‘Calm down’

The chancellor’s fairly extraordinary interview yesterday when he made his difference of view abundantly clear displayed how that’s already happening.

Right now in Westminster keeping the Cabinet together is hard enough for Theresa May. One senior backbencher told me today ministers should pipe down and “shake off this madness – it’s so childish, playground stuff”.

Another Tory MP said “those Cabinet boys need to calm down”, stand by the PM and focus on their own jobs.

Today’s events in Brussels make plain if the PM makes it through these hot days of summer, there’s nothing straightforward ahead.