Sorry Remainers, but Theresa May means business when it comes to Brexit

Things may have gone quiet on the Brexit front but May knows that with a tiny Commons majority of 12, she needs to reassure Tory backbenchers who threaten insurrection at any hint of backsliding

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The Independent Online

When Gordon Brown became prime minister, he promised to end the spin of the Blair era – which, of course, was a piece of spin in itself. Theresa May’s allies now say she will end David Cameron’s “government-by-headline”. We are told there will be fewer announcements, but when they come – after the new PM has carefully weighed up the decision – they will be bigger and better.

In theory, May is right. In practice, it will be very hard to achieve. The media abhors a vacuum and will always fill it. Inevitably, speculation is already rife about the PM’s intentions on Brexit. Some Europhile MPs and peers cling to the hope that Brexit will never happen, that May knows we will struggle to get a good trade deal with the EU and will pull back to avoid damaging the economy. They took heart from reports at the weekend that she might delay triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which starts the formal two-year negotiation on the UK’s exit terms.

Theresa May says she has an 'open mind' over Brexit negotiations

I think the pro-EU optimists will be disappointed, and expect that May will invoke Article 50 next January or February. Why? Because the rest of the EU is already furious enough about what it sees as foot-dragging in London. Other EU leaders have already given May extra time. When the Conservative Party leadership election was due to end in September, she planned to trigger Article 50 early next year and did not bring the date forward when she became PM in July. Any further delay might be counterproductive for Britain. Although the European Commission and May’s EU counterparts cannot force us to start formal negotiations, they can make life very difficult for us when we eventually do. And it is “when,” not “if”.

Some Europhiles see a ray of hope because May backed Remain in the referendum and has said she now wants the closest possible economic relationship with the EU. But they shouldn’t translate that into hoping that the PM is secretly planning to keep us in the EU club.

When she says “Brexit means Brexit”, she means it. She doesn’t know what it means yet, but that’s a different matter. May believes that her task is to make a success of the decision taken by the public in June. The mantra in Downing Street is: “We’re all Brexiteers now.” The view is that it would be political suicide to ignore the referendum decision or try to work round it, and would only compound the alienation from the political class that led to the Brexit vote in the first place.

May also knows that, with a tiny Commons majority of 12, she needs to reassure Tory backbenchers who backed Leave, who will threaten insurrection at any hint of backsliding. We have got used to our political leaders dissembling and spinning, but with May what you see is what you get.

However, her approach will not make Brexit plain sailing for her. There choppy waters ahead already loom into view. Some Tory MPs wonder whether May’s appointment of the Three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as Brexit Secretary, and Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary – was too clever by half. Inevitably, a turf war has broken out, with Fox trying to poach the economic diplomacy function of Johnson’s department for his own empire. It was seen as a “try on” in Whitehall and rebuffed by Boris.

It won’t be the last such skirmish. May’s allies are not impressed and she will probably bang the Three Brexiteers’ heads together when she returns from her holiday. “We need to play as a team, not as individuals,” said one May ally.  The PM will chair the crucial Cabinet committee on Brexit, and the Three Brexiteers may find they have less influence over what Brexit will actually mean than they now hope.