Brexit: It's nearly now or never for UK-EU trade deal

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Image caption,
Talks appeared to be going late into the evening as the pizzas arrived in Westminster

Whether they were double pepperonis, Hawaiians, or even just basic cheese and tomato, there was a tell-tale suggestion tonight that the Brexit negotiating teams were hard at it.

They don't work late into the night if there is nothing to talk about, and if there is no pressure.

So a delivery of boxes and boxes of pizza arriving at the venue where the talks are taking place in central London suggest, at least, they believe there is stuff that's worth chewing over (sorry) and that needs to be concluded urgently.

And while I have every sympathy if you read this and just feel you have seen it all before, there is more than just the takeaway that tells us it's nearly now or never.

After months and months, and yes, months of talks, several sources have told me on Wednesday that the process is likely to be concluded in the next few days.

One ambassador told me there was a hope the agreement could be finalised on Friday, with another diplomatic source confirming a deal at the end of this week is a possibility - suggesting the agreement is basically done, even though "it could all still fall apart".

As my colleague, BBC Europe editor Katya Adler, wrote earlier, the EU chief negotiator updated the bloc's members in a video call today, and it's certainly the case there are nerves on that side about how much he might give away.

It's certainly not the case though the negotiators have managed to find ingenious solutions to every single issue raised in these vast talks that will placate both sides 100%.

But there are two very good reasons - aside from whispers from those involved - that a conclusion is now very near.

Time ticking down

There is a real fear that the deal, if it's done, can't be turned into law in time unless that process starts by the middle of next week.

The deal will have to go through Parliament here, and in the EU, before the transition period ends in a few weeks' time.

There's always been a mythical threat around this - and be wary of a politician claiming a deadline - but simply, given the number of days that Parliament is due to sit between now and the end of the year, it becomes pretty much impossible unless it gets going next week.

It is also the case that if there isn't a deal, which still could come to pass, then ministers are worried about scrambling to get businesses prepared to cope with what might happen.

They are concerned about that frankly in any case, because even with an agreement, a big change is on the way.

But one cabinet minister confident that a deal will be done by early next week, told me Boris Johnson had become increasingly worried about reaping the political consequences of failing to reach a deal - he doesn't want queues of lorries in Kent to be blamed on him.

Media caption,
Confused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

There is another technical reason for speed now, as alongside that, the government plans to bring in a new Taxation Bill and continue its fight over the UK Internal Market Bill soon too.

The first might make an appearance in the middle of next week, and happily the BBC's economics editor, Faisal Islam, has written about it here.

And the UKIM -that caused such a stink over ministers' admissions that it could lead them to breach international law - is likely to be back in the Commons the week after next.

Those draft laws could provoke such a storm in the EU - essentially undermining the deal the UK did with Brussels last year - that they could torpedo the talks at the last moment.

Two well-placed EU sources were clear in conversation today that if the government pressed ahead with the controversial clauses in those bits of legislation before a deal had been done, it would kill the chances stone dead.

But, despite nudges and winks around the place that the process is nearly there, despite the solid reasons that point to a finale in the next few days, there is still a question about whether the two sides have ever come to understand each other.

One minister involved in one of the tricky aspects of the talks is absolutely adamant the EU was still being downright unreasonable.

One member state source told me that it feels like "doing a pre-nup agreement", adding: "We want a long and stable marriage, but Boris Johnson is trying to get enough freedom to cheat."

It seems like the two sides are just about ready to commit. But the mantra we have learned in this last four years is as instructive as it was at the start - "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" - and more pizza nights might still be required.

What will Labour do?

P.S. If a deal is done, then as I mentioned, it will have to then pass through Parliament, which will throw up its own intrigue.

There is likely, of course, to be some belly aching among the true believers in the Brexit camp. There have been fears about Boris Johnson conceding too much, so don't expect there to be no pushback.

But given this time last year Tory MPs were elected on their promise to "Get Brexit Done", it seems unlikely - unless the deal is a true shocker from their point of view - that the prime minister will have significant trouble from his own side.

What will also be interesting to watch, however, is how Labour responds.

Most of the party's MPs thought the idea of leaving the EU was crackers, and their leader, Sir Keir Starmer, was one of the strongest voices pushing for another referendum.

But, given the choice in Parliament before them will hypothetically be between a deal or not having an agreement at all, it seems most likely they will choose to back an agreement and move on.

However, there is likely to be tension over the decision, with some senior voices perhaps pushing to abstain.

P.P.S. It's worth saying that theoretically there might not have to be a vote on the treaty.

But the government has already made it clear that there will be legislation that will need at least one vote, and in fact likely a whole series of votes.

It is not clear exactly what kind of votes there will be, and as it's Parliament and Brexit, there's probably likely to be a row about exactly how it unfolds.

But from a political point of view, both Labour and the Tories are already discussing whether to back 'the deal', even though the process once it hits the Commons may be more complex than that.