Boris Johnson is now in what’s known in cricket as the ‘Nervous Nineties’, when a batsman becomes so anxious about reaching his century that he takes unusually conservative decisions – or is so nervous he accidentally gets himself out. We are now in what could be the final few days of the Brexit negotiations, and the Prime Minister is trying to be unusually cautious about what’s said and done. Ministers are being urged to hold their nerve rather than make comments which could push the talks off course, and No. 10 is remaining very tight-lipped.
In a cabinet call this afternoon which a number of ministers described as ‘businesslike’, Johnson updated his top team but made clear that there wasn’t a great deal to say at this time. He took questions from everyone who wanted to make a contribution in the conference call, which lasted around 25 minutes, but wasn’t always able to furnish them with much more information.
The official Downing Street read-out of the call was rather spare: ‘The Prime Minister said there was a way forward for a deal that could secure all our interests, respect the Good Friday Agreement, get rid of the backstop and get Brexit done by October 31 so we can push on with domestic agenda.’
I understand from those who I’ve spoken to that the mood was positive, with both Secretaries of State who are very enthusiastic Brexiteers and the more Remain-minded types on the call taking care to congratulate Johnson on what he had done with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in particular. There was also praise for Michael Gove’s work on no-deal planning, with the Prime Minister emphasising that Britain could still be leaving without a deal on 31 October. But other ministers were keen to emphasise the benefits of reaching an agreement: Chancellor Sajid Javid pointed out the way the markets had responded to there being a scintilla of a possibility of a deal.
Unusually, cabinet ministers are reasonably content that they’re not being given all the details. They accept that only a small circle of people are really party to what’s actually going on in talks. The line from No. 10 is very much ‘we need to let their negotiators do their job’. This sounds all very good in theory on a Sunday night, but it’s highly unlikely that everyone is going to be able to maintain their composure throughout this week of Nervous Nineties.