POLITICS
19/11/2020 6:00 PM AEDT | Updated 20/11/2020 12:56 AM AEDT

Brexit Endgame: No Deal Nerves Creeping In Among Tory MPs

Some are “flapping” about the economic impact, but others say voters are more worried about Brexit being watered down without Dominic Cummings.

So it comes to this. The Brexit endgame playing out in the middle of the economically devastating pandemic.

Negotiators are locked in talks expected to end next week and we will, hopefully, finally know whether the UK will leave the EU with a trade deal, or without.

As EU leaders prepare to meet over the next few days, Whitehall sources and several MPs played down the idea that there are jitters in the cabinet and on the Tory backbenches.

But three MPs have told HuffPost UK there are increasing concerns among ministers and 2019 intake Tories that the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit could heap extra misery on top of the Covid crisis. 

It is important to remember that most Tory MPs were elected last year on the promise to end the standstill transition period, deal or no deal, on January 1.

And most of them are relaxed about the negotiations and ready for Boris Johnson to make compromises, including a transition period over fishing waters and an agreement on state aid - two of the key sticking points halting progress towards a deal.

But there are hints that some of the steely resolve to “get Brexit done” is starting to crack as talks enter their final high-stakes phase.

One experienced Tory says some 2019 intake MPs are “flapping” in WhatsApp group chats as they face up to the potential impacts on their constituencies.

“Their thoughts are only as deep as the Daily Mail,” they say.

“A lot of them don’t understand it in any case, it’s all the patriotism of coming out of Europe and what the public say, which is fine and it’s great and I sign up to that.

“But when it comes down to: what does this actually mean for us, they are fixated on what’s going on in their own constituencies on a microcosm level.

“The new intake are flapping because they’re the new intake.”

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Brexit talks between UK chief negotiator Lord David Frost (left) and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier (right) are coming to a close

Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the powerful 1922 backbench committee, has also detected “a little bit of nervousness” about the combined impact of Covid and Brexit without a trade deal.

The Cotswolds MP, who voted Leave, says he has seen first hand 2019 MPs who are “generally a bit nervous about where jobs and the economy are going basically”.

He also suggests those MPs are also worried about their constituencies being the hardest hit in a no-deal scenario.

It follows studies suggesting less well-off communities and particularly the so-called “red wall” the Tories took from Labour in December’s election would suffer the biggest impact.

“I think most of the new intake are fairly eurosceptic but I think it (concerns) stems from the fact that they are nervous about the damage to the economy done by Covid plus the fact that no deal would make trading more difficult and they are worried about unemployment and business,” Clifton-Brown says.

Senior Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake, Michael Gove’s parliamentary aide, says there is apprehension “on the frontbenches as well”.

Government sources have denied reports that ministers and departments including the Treasury and business secretary Alok Sharma are privately pushing for concessions to get a deal.

But Hollinrake suggests: “There’s bound to be different views on this and different perspectives.

“That’s inevitable there will be slightly different approaches on these negotiations and what we do now but most people I speak up to are signed up to (the strategy).

“The more we look disunited at a time like this, the less likely we are to get a deal.

“I think it’s a case of all standing up to a game of brinkmanship.” 

I’ve probably had more people messaging me about Dominic Cummings going, with a concern we’re not going to do Brexit.”

However, several MPs reject suggestions that anxiety is creeping in as Brexit enters the endgame.

One 2019 intake MP acknowledges that businesses in their constituency are beginning to relay their concerns about the impact.

HuffPost UK also understands that even Brexiteers are angry about the lateness of some of the preparation, as companies ask government bodies like HMRC what they need to do to get ready for January 1, and often receive no answer.

But the 2019 intake MP suggests voters in their constituency are more worried about Brexit being watered down after Vote Leave supremo Dominic Cummings was forced out of No.10.

“I’ve got quite a few people messaging me from businesses but are there any more than messaged me before about no deal? No, I haven’t seen a huge uptick, I’ve seen a couple of people,” they say.

“I’ve probably had more people messaging me about Dominic Cummings going, with a concern we’re not going to do Brexit.”

They also reject the suggestion that Johnson’s claims of an “oven ready” Brexit would lie in tatters without a deal, stressing voters understand the difference between the withdrawal agreement that took the UK out of the EU this year and the trade deal currently being negotiated.

But they acknowledge that any economic has to be mitigated.

“The big ticket has come, we have left the EU, the rest is just leaving it up to politicians,” the MP says.

“Of course we’ll get people on both sides — ardent Remainers and ardent Leavers - who are always going to have these battles.

“Would I say it’s going to be a big vote winner or vote loser? No.

“Obviously if we get the economy wrong, that’s going to be a big vote loser.”

Hollinrake agrees: “Most of the new intake are Brexit supporters, I’d be surprised if they were too nervous about what’s going on.

“In terms of a tough line in negotiations — I campaigned heavily in Darlington in the general election and a tough line in negotiations was very popular at the time and I doubt that’s changed much.”

Another new colleague stresses that most of the intake are still optimistic about a deal and that compromises are “priced in”, including allowing the French to access UK fishing waters for a few years while that thorny issue is hammered out away from the pressure of wider trade talks.

“Most of my intake were elected on a platform of: we’ll get the best deal we can, if we can’t get a deal then Australia,” they say. “Most of my intake came in on that basis.

“I suspect there’s a preference for a deal, but if the PM turned round and said we’d tried our best, we’ve negotiated this in good faith, we’ve spent a lot of time on this and it’s just not been possible to get a deal that’s acceptable - there won’t be any big issue with that.”

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Fisheries have become a totemic issue in Brexit negotiations

Several MPs meanwhile indicate that the party will be willing to wear concessions, including on state aid, control of which was one of the key planks of a Cummings Brexit.

Clifton-Brown suggests that a deal could be done to keep the two sides happy on that issue, as long as Britain can eventually move away from the EU.

“A time-limited arrangement on that would be perfectly acceptable,” he says.

“I think if it was forever more that would really mean we hadn’t quite left.”

Remainers and One Nation Tories are meanwhile seeing Cummings’ departure as a victory and a step closer to a deal, which could include at the “vexed” question of how the European Court of Justice interacts with any agreement resolved via a “complex fudge”.

“A lot of us have been very concerned at the prospect of a no-deal but I think the chances of that just got less,” one says.

The mere mention of fudging the European Court of Justice issue from that wing of the party may spark concerns among the hardcore Brexiteers on the European Research Group (ERG).

And it remains to be seen whether they can live without taking full control of fishing waters immediately.

But ultimately if Johnson gets a deal, few MPs predict that the hard Brexit it will usher is likely to spark much meaningful opposition from Tories.

The real question is whether Brexit, with or without a deal, harms the very voters he is trying to “level up” as they attempt to recover from the economic devastation caused by coronavirus.