Friday briefing: Crunch weekend in Brexit deal talks

·10-min read
<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Top story: ‘We are in the space of days not weeks’

Hello, Warren Murray with one more briefing to cap off the week.

British and EU negotiators may be entering their last few days to reach a post-Brexit trade deal. Monday looms as the potential cut-off date, being when Downing Street intends to reinsert clauses into the internal market bill that would break the withdrawal agreement. EU sources have said their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, could return to Brussels today to brief officials and diplomats on the latest developments. Negotiations were said to have taken a sudden step backwards on Thursday afternoon, with Downing Street blaming the French for introducing late demands about the regulation of subsidies – a claim dismissed by Brussels. The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that Johnson had lowered his Brexit demands by asking EU fishing fleets to hand over up to 60% of the value of stocks they take from British waters, down from 80%, but this was rejected by the EU.

Senior EU diplomats on Thursday said Barnier was treading on some of the “red lines” set out for him in the negotiations, although they expected him not to go further. The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said the EU should trust in Barnier to deliver. “We are now at a very critical and sensitive point of the negotiations … I want to see a deal done and I believe a deal is possible.” Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “We are in the space of days not weeks. Closing out a negotiation as complex as this one is never going to be easy.” The wobble in the talks could tee up a long expected arbitration meeting between Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Meanwhile, London Labour MPs have been told by City Hall that the public “overwhelmingly” wants them to back a Brexit deal, as Keir Starmer tries to avert a damaging party rift. After Labour’s crushing defeat in last December’s general election, Starmer is minded to whip his MPs to vote in favour of a deal, partly to send a message to Brexit voters whose seats Labour lost to the Tories.

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Mask America safe again – Joe Biden intends to call for all Americans to wear masks for 100 days after he becomes president. Biden also said that “when Dr Fauci says we have a vaccine and it’s safe” he would be willing to join Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama who have pledged to get vaccinated on TV.

Fauci himself has apologised for appearing to criticise Britain’s speedy approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way,” said the leading US infectious diseases expert, whom Biden has just designated as his chief medical adviser. In the UK, NHS staff have been bumped down the vaccine priority list after a drastic rethink. Hospitals will instead begin by immunising care home staff, as well as hospital inpatients and outpatients aged over 80. NHS bosses have warned the 800,000 doses in the UK’s first consignment from Belgium may be “the only batch we receive for some time”. Doctors in England are meanwhile anxious that letting households mix over Christmas will lead to people infecting vulnerable relatives. Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “In my opinion the relaxation of rules at Christmas is crass in the extreme.”

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Anyone seen Britain’s wallet? – The Bank of England has been rebuked for losing track of £50bn worth of banknotes. The Commons public accounts committee (PAC) said the equivalent of a stack of £5 notes more than 800 miles high had essentially gone “missing” because the Bank did not keep close enough tabs on cash usage. The National Audit Office says they may be in use overseas or in the UK. The PAC speculated that some might be stuffed under mattresses or circulating in the shadow economy. The Bank has said more people are probably hoarding cash during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “£50bn of sterling notes – or about three-quarters of this precious and dwindling supply – is stashed somewhere but the Bank of England doesn’t know where, who by, or what for, and doesn’t seem very curious.”

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Merkel hard act to follow – In 15 years in power Angela Merkel has gained a reputation as Germany’s “Teflon chancellor” because her opponents’ criticism never seemed to stick. But her designated successor, Armin Laschet, is a magnet for bad press. When the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) started the race for a new leader in February, Laschet, premier of North-Rhine Westphalia state, was the frontrunner. But his talent for crisis management came under scrutiny when he pushed loudly to ease the nationwide lockdown – only to have to reimpose one in his own backyard, as infections took off in the town of Gütersloh.

The CDU state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet &#x002013; seen flanked by his wife, Susanne, and son Johannes.
The CDU state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet – seen flanked by his wife, Susanne, and son Johannes. Photograph: Gisela Schober/Getty Images

This week it emerged his state handed PPE contracts worth a total of €42.5m to a fashion company that pays his son to show its clothes on his Instagram channel. Laschet denies nepotism, saying the PPE offer had been the cheapest. In the meantime, approval ratings have soared for his rival, the Bavaria state leader, Markus Söder. Delegates will vote in a digital party congress in January. It is all a far cry from when everyone thought the current CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer or “AKK”, would succeed Merkel – only for her to announce her resignation in February.

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Covid changes how we eat – Britons are drinking rosé all year round and firing up their barbecues in the depths of winter, according to a report on how food and drink trends have been “fundamentally reshaped” by the pandemic. Cooking at home has become the new commute, providing a clear separation between work and home time, while more than half of households have been more carefully planning recipes and meals. The annual report from Waitrose underlines a shift towards online shopping, initially triggered by initial lockdown but now set to stay. After panic-buying early in lockdown, more than half of respondents said they valued food more now and were wasting less, while pickling and fermenting and making the most of their freezers.

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Nice job, kid – A 15-year-old scientist and inventor has been named as Time magazine’s first “kid of the year”. Gitanjali Rao from Denver, Colorado has invented new technologies including a device that can identify lead in drinking water and an app and Chrome extension that uses artificial intelligence to detect cyberbullying.

Gitanjali Rao, the first ever Time magazine kid of the year
Gitanjali Rao, the first ever Time magazine kid of the year. Photograph: Time/PA

She said she hoped she could inspire others to dream up ideas to “solve the world’s problems”. Gitanjali was chosen from a field of 5,000 US-based nominees, which was whittled down to five finalists by a committee of young people alongside comedian and TV presenter Trevor Noah. Time began awarding its man of the year honour in 1927, later updating it to person of the year, but this is the first time it has named a kid of the year.

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Sport

UK Sport failed to investigate detailed claims from a British Cycling whistleblower who also alleged that “Shane Sutton is corrupt”, leaked emails to the Guardian suggest. The ODI series against South Africa is next in line but England’s Test captain Joe Root is already looking ahead to the Ashes in Australia. Arsenal achieved a convincing 4-1 win against Rapid Vienna in Europa League Group B on the night fans returned to Emirates Stadium. A late penalty from Dele Alli ensured Tottenham qualified for the knockout stages with a game to spare, despite Mamoudou Karamoko’s late equaliser in a 3-3 draw at Lask. England are meant to be preparing for a rugby union final against France but rarely has rugby league featured more prominently in the pre-match Twickenham conversation.

George Russell has described his chance to race for Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement at the Sakhir Grand Prix as an almost surreal end to an unbelievable year. England will continue using coded signals from the balcony during the one-day series in South Africa that begins on Friday, with Eoin Morgan insisting “there is nothing untoward” about the system and it is “100% in the spirit of the game”. The National Football Museum has pledged to increase representation of the women’s game to 50% of its displays by 2022 and is telling “hidden stories”. And Russell Westbrook is headed to the Washington Wizards and John Wall is moving to the Houston Rockets in a significant swap of point guards just weeks before the NBA season starts.

Business

After reaching its highest point against the US dollar in almost a year, the pound has hung on to most of its gains overnight and is trading at $1.345 this morning. It climbed as high as $1.35 on Thursday amid mounting hopes that the government will reach an 11th-hour trade deal with the EU. Against the euro, sterling is buying €1.107. Asian markets climbed ever higher overnight boosted by the US tech index, the Nasdaq, closing at an all-time high. The FTSE 100 is expected to open higher by 0.45%.

The papers

The Guardian’s top story today is “NHS staff no longer top priority to receive coronavirus vaccine”. Our front page also features the blast at a wastewater plant in Bristol that killed four people – the silo that blew up held treated biosolids due to be recycled into organic soil conditioner – and the government’s vow to outdo all other major economies on emissions cuts by 2030. The Times has “Britain hits back over vaccine” following criticisms intended, unintended, perceived or otherwise from abroad. It also has on its front “Eton head defends decision to sack teacher in free speech row” – the teacher in question was dismissed amid a row over a video lecture entitled the Patriarchy Paradox, about masculinity and gender roles.

The Express amplifies the government’s “blame the French” line with “What a cheek! EU blocks talks at 11th hour”. On which subject the Telegraph says “Brexit deal on line over French fishing”. The Mail has “Priti fury at stars’ insult to Windrush victims” – it all looks somewhat confected as the home secretary says celebrities should not be invoking the Windrush scandal in their protests against deportation of Jamaican criminals. The Mirror says “Supermarket cash can save our pubs”, arguing that £1.8bn in rate relief handed back by the big chains should be used to “help thousands of boozers that face closure under the tier system”.

The Metro has “Gaffin’ Gavin at it again” after Gavin Williamson said Britain got the vaccine first because Britain is a “much better country” than the others. The i says “Vaccine arrives in UK”. The Sun quotes the Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding as saying “I’m fighting as hard as I can” as she continues to battle cancer. The FT leads on “Ryanair boosts Boeing with first Max jet order since fatal crashes” – those last two words bringing the headline to a heavy landing.

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