WHAT are the chances of a last-minute Brexit deal?
Well, one optimistic Government insider thinks there is a one-in-four chance a deal will be done that would allow the UK to leave on October 31.
Civil servants came away from last Sunday’s meeting with Boris Johnson at Chevening House in Kent more convinced than they had been previously that he and his team really wanted a deal.
This, combined with a meeting with Irish Premier Leo Varadkar, which, in the words of one senior government source, “Went better than anyone expected”, has given extra impetus to the Government’s work towards a deal.
At a meeting of a key Cabinet committee this week, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay updated ministers on the progress that has been made — and the biggest obstacle to a deal.
Barclay began by taking aim at Amber Rudd, who resigned last weekend saying she had not seen any evidence the Government was trying to get a deal.
Barclay said if Rudd had bothered to ring him, he could have told her what was going on.
He told the committee that EU members were now convinced the UK wanted to make a “surgical intervention” on the withdrawal agreement, rather than rip the whole thing up.
So they are more prepared to listen to the UK’s ideas and countenance reopening the agreement.
First, it must avoid any infrastructure on the border that would be incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. Second, it must protect the integrity of the EU’s single market. Third, it must not involve any checks on the island of Ireland.
Barclay said the UK could meet the first two of these tests, but not the third. He said there was no point in presenting any detailed proposals until the EU shifted on the question of checks.
One Government source explains that if the UK did, the “EU would nuke the proposals and we would be in chaos”.
So the challenge for Boris is to get the EU to move on this third point. His Monday meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gives him a chance to lobby him on this very issue.
Juncker is an instinctive deal-maker and, with his term as president due to end on October 31, he will be keen to resolve Brexit before he goes.
I also understand that several EU governments, including in France, are now apprehensive about the possibility of a second referendum.
'WE WOULD BE IN CHAOS'
They believe it would be bad for the EU for the UK to stay in given how contested UK membership now is.
They fear this would lead to every Council decision, all new EU legislation and every European Court of Justice judgment becoming a matter of controversy.
The EU, though, will not abandon Ireland. This means that whatever proposal Boris comes up with will have to be something Leo Varadkar is prepared to swallow.
The first meeting between the two men has given Downing Street some hope that they can find something that works for Dublin, them and the DUP.
The DUP’s willingness to entertain Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU rules on agriculture has opened the door to further discussions.
If Parliament had not tied Boris’s hands, he could have seen if the risk of No Deal would have pushed Dublin and the EU to compromise on the checks front. But his ability to negotiate is now weakened.
For this and other reasons, the odds are still against a deal. But there is a greater chance of one than a week ago.
Lib Dems preparing to rule...really
The Liberal Democrats start their conference today in their strongest position for years.
They are polling around 20 per cent and in line to make major gains at the next election.
At conference next week they are expected to adopt as their position that a Lib Dem government – stop laughing at the back – would simply revoke Article 50, cancelling the referendum result.
This will establish them as the most unambiguously anti-Brexit party, a development that concerns a growing number of Labour MPs in Remain seats who want their party to take a clearer line on the issue for fear of losing ground to the Lib Dems.
At the same time, the policy means that the Liberal Democrats can tell voters they will make the whole issue go away. By contrast, a second referendum would drag things out.
If politics is now about Leave v Remain, rather than Left v Right, expect the Lib Dems to come back with more MPs than they have ever had before, following the next election.
Students set for shake-up
One of the things that urgently needs sorting out in this country is technical education.
Those who don’t want to do an academic degree are being ill-served by further education.
Gavin Williamson, the new Education Secretary, told Cabinet this week that there are up to 100,000 people trained in Hair & Beauty yet only a need for about 18,000 new recruits to work in this industry each year.
The result is tens of thousands of people doing courses that don’t lead to them getting jobs or boost this country’s productivity.
Crime to top domestic agenda
Those who want a second Brexit referendum are now arguing there shouldn’t be a General Election until a second referendum has taken place.
Leave aside the massive issue of whether there should be a second referendum before the result of the first one has even been implemented, this plan would mean that this Parliament would have to carry on sitting until well into 2020.
This is a disastrous idea. This is a useless Parliament and keeping it going will just add to the national paralysis.
With no party able to command a majority in the Commons, nothing can get done. Even if this Parliament could muster a majority for a referendum, which is far from certain, it could do so for little else.
The public desire for politicians to get on with both Brexit and the domestic agenda is why No10 will spend next week trying to emphasise its tough-on-crime policies.
I understand Boris Johnson will put flesh on the bones of his plan to end early release for violent and unrepentant criminals.
Rudd for Kensington
Friends are urging Amber Rudd to stand in the West London seat of Kensington at the next election.
Its controversial Labour MP, Emma Dent Coad, has a majority of just 20.
The thinking goes that the constituency isn’t keen on either No Deal or Jeremy Corbyn, so Rudd could do well standing as an independent.
But it is exceptionally hard for independents to win seats, and if Rudd were to go down this course, she would be standing in the constituency for the first time – she is currently MP for Hastings, down on the south coast.