Why PM has stopped talking up 'frictionless' trade

The government has dropped the word “frictionless” from the aims of its post-Brexit trade deal.

The political declaration is frictionless-less. This really matters. This is not an accident, say cabinet sources.

Yes the declaration is vague, aspirational and not legally-binding. But the aim since Chequers has been to maintain current trading arrangements for Dover-Calais on behalf of advanced manufacturing businesses, retail, and everyone dependent on just-in time deliveries from the continent.

It was purposefully different from the previous aspiration: “as frictionless as possible”.

Indeed just a few weeks ago, one of Theresa May’s closest lieutenants told me that there was no way there would be any extra trade friction in the new relationship with the EU.

“Friction – over my dead body” was the surprising retort to my inquiries.

Theresa May addresses the media 2:25
Video: May: ‘This is the right deal for the UK’

The political declaration has, say cabinet sources, consciously dropped the aim of “frictionless trade”, and so has dropped Chequers, leaving the government heading towards a more straightforward trade deal with room for third party free trade deals.

The amount of friction or checks at the border will depend on the extent of regulatory alignment agreed by Commons with EU rules.

There are two problems here. It, and the extra language on alternatives to the Irish backstop, did not land on the floor of the Commons with the Brexiters it was designed to impress.

With some discipline, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Boris Johnson queued up to damn the political declaration with the faintest of praise before a laser-like focus on junking the backstop.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May for a meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on November 21, 2018. - The British Prime Minister on November 21 briefly escaped the Westminster bear pit to bring her Brexit battle to Brussels, just four days before the divorce deal is to be signed. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images) 7:20
Video: EU and UK officials agree draft political declaration on future relationship

Mark Francois asked the PM directly: “Why have you repeatedly made commitments at the dispatch box and done the opposite?”

Even Dominic Grieve joined in the backstop-bashing.

Afterwards, privately, such MPs said it was a “daft whipping tactic designed to persuade us to back the permanent purgatory of the backstop. It won’t work”.

But it has nonetheless spooked some in the business groups that Number 10 is relying on to sell the deal.

An internal CBI email obtained by ITV News said “it’s not a good deal” but other groupings were concerned that their press releases were being deployed to back what could end up a Canada-style deal.

The PM’s official line to the Commons was: “It continues to be our ambition and our objective to get that frictionless trade at the border, because we believe that is important”.

But it is nowhere in the political declaration or the withdrawal deal.

The tactics were clear from the morning. Another statement in Downing Street – the prime ministerial pulpit deployed to full effect as the PM tried to sell progress on her Brexit deal to public and Parliament.

The rest of the 26-page declaration contained some ladders to allow soft parliamentary opponents down which to climb.

But there were no takers. There will now be three days of back and forth with the EU27 over Gibraltar and fishing before it is signed off on Sunday in Brussels.

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The PM badly needs some more help with the optics. Perhaps top EU leaders ruling out a second referendum. Something dramatic.

Downing Street perhaps thought a spot of political theatre and deal done with the European Commission would get MPs in line – there is little evidence of that.

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