UK Politics

Brexit: Where has the process got to?

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It's felt like a long time to get this far.

Decades of debate about our place in the EU. Years of push me, pull you debates on the right, about whether there should be a referendum on our membership of the European Union. The crashing highs and lows, and lows and highs of the referendum campaign itself.

And since then, more than 18 months of the Brexit process squeezing the life out of almost everything else in our politics - still a subject of huge division, of frustration, of thrill and excitement, of concern and fascination and question marks.

Much of 'Brexit' is mind-numbing to many in its complexity and level of detail. Some of the political game-playing is tedious soap opera to all but a precious few. The parliamentary process is vital but labyrinthine. The layers upon layers of party divisions are ever shifting, and hard to track.

But what looks like a series of individual clashes, or indeed occasionally a shambles, matters. Because the eventual decisions that will and are being made in all of our names are a product of all of those tangles, and they will affect our livelihoods and the place of the country in the world for many years to come.

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With six months to go, and a critical meeting of EU leaders later this week, where the UK hopes to move into the next phase, it's worth taking a breath and reflecting, in a way that's not exhaustive, on where this process has got to. The most likely outcome right now is that a deal between the UK and the EU will be done in November.

If that happens it will be made up of a legally binding withdrawal agreement - that contains the cash, what happens to citizens on both sides, and in theory, a solution for Northern Ireland. Alongside that will be the document that in theory shapes the future of the relationship for good - the political declaration.

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However, as we joked at the beginning of the process that the deal was likely in the end to be a fudge, so it seems that could come to pass. Behind the scenes diplomats and politicians are starting to talk about the declaration being vague, in order that trickiest issues don't have to be resolved yet.

A senior cabinet minister told me last week, 'ambiguity might be the way out'. Michael Gove even suggested publicly on Sunday that this year's deal doesn't have to be the end of the story. One diplomat told me that a vague deal might be the way through but that means Brexit would then essentially go on for years - 'If the vagueness is the solution then at the end we start again'.

This set of Brexit talks would conclude, only for years of a next phase to begin. But this is becoming known as 'blind Brexit', and while it is a possible way out of the talks it has obvious problems. One MP joked that we might end up with an 'agreement of adjectives'.

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The most pressing argument against a vague deal is concern over the Irish border. Again in his column in the Daily Telegraph, the former foreign secretary expresses his frustration with how that question has become such a central issue in the talks.

But frankly, it's been the blindingly obvious case for many months, that without a convincing arrangement coming from the UK side, the EU will find it extremely difficult to do the deal, without forcing their backstop. There's talk in negotiation circles of 'backstop 2', there's talk of a way of softening the language around the EU's position. And, of course, Brexiteers are trying hard to force Theresa May to put a different set of arrangements on the table.

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There is, however, no chance of her shifting, at least not until after the end of the Conservative conference. Her Chequers agreement where officials and ministers drafted a way through the EU and UK red lines is her plan for now and she isn't budging until she is forced to.

Without going through the arguments as we have discussed many times here, her Chequers deal is one of the reasons why her job is at risk. Since the election, her handling of Brexit has made her vulnerable to circling rivals in the Tory party. Her advocates believe she has displayed extraordinary resilience holding on so far. But there is a sense of foreboding around the place.

More and more MPs are willing to say publicly that after Brexit her time is limited. One senior MP suggested to me that if those close to the Prime Minister aren't telling her that then they are in fact doing her a disservice.

The Tories have been lucky though in one sense. An opposition party that was less distracted by its own woes could be tearing strips off the government daily. As it is, with Labour's own problems so clearly on display, the government is in a less precarious position than you might expect.

But they are vulnerable, enormously vulnerable, in the next couple of months. Assuming that there is a deal of some sorts (if it is possible to assume anything), the government is not certain to be able to get the vote through the House of Commons. Government insiders believe the vote will get through, that most MPs will choose the relative stability of a deal, rather than take the risk. One Tory MP even said last week, 'any deal is better than no deal'.

But, and it is a big but, Tory hard core eurosceptics might join with the opposition parties to bring the deal down. They really might. If that happens there is no map and no precedent. Those campaigning vigorously for a second referendum believe that could be their opportunity to push for a second vote. The Labour Party hope that would bring a general election giving them an opportunity to win.

A vote could sink Theresa May, or even re-open the referendum. The bumps of the last two years could be nothing in comparison to that.