How will the Tory party remember 2017? Will it be the year it lost its majority, alienated key sections of the electorate and paved the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership? Or the year when uncertainty about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union peaked, when debt finally began to fall and the Tory party resisted the temptation of a Corn Laws-style split? We won’t know for several years. What we can say with confidence is that Brexit will prove key to determining which view of 2017 wins out.
On Monday, Theresa May heads to Brussels for a meeting with the European Commission. Over lunch, she will set out what Britain is prepared to offer on the financial settlement, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish border. In the days that follow, Juncker will tell the EU member states what has been proposed and a verdict will be reached on whether there has been ‘sufficient progress’ to move on to trade and transition.
If the EU won’t agree to go to the next stage, the British government will walk away from the talks. Or, at least, it wants the EU to think it will. I have been struck in recent days by how those who are normally very careful about the language they use, even in private, have been talking about how insufficient progress this month will mean ‘curtains for the process’. Even those in the cabinet most keen for a deal are quick to point out that it would be very hard to keep negotiating if the EU swallows every British concession, then demands more.
In Whitehall a sense that there will be ‘sufficient progress’ prevails. Government sources say they are close enough on citizens’ rights and the divorce settlement that the Irish border will not derail them. One figure close to the negotiations tells me that they are confident they can come up with a ‘higher form of words’ on the border to give the pugnacious Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ‘a ladder to climb down’.