Theresa May’s big Brexit speech has ensured her survival – for a week at least

One Conservative MP has predicted ‘an almighty crisis’ in Parliament this autumn as the terms of Brexit are finalised

John Rentoul
Saturday 03 March 2018 16:32
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Theresa May sets out her five tests any EU deal must pass

A Conservative Remainer MP predicted to me there would be “an almighty crisis” this autumn as the Prime Minister tried to steer Brexit through Parliament. So we should probably take the approving noises from that wing of the Tory party for Theresa May’s big speech at the Mansion House as a temporary truce, not a permanent peace.

Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, welcomed a “pragmatic and positive speech”. She was one of the 11 Tory rebels who helped defeat the Government in December to guarantee a “meaningful vote” in Parliament on the exit deal – that is, a vote that could force ministers to go back to the negotiating table.

But she did also warn that, if the EU side rejected the Prime Minister’s plan for a customs partnership, “we are no further on”.

May’s was a clever speech, surprisingly warmly received by both wings of her party. Journalists were ready to scoff but found it hard to identify anyone who was against it, apart from Nigel Farage and Guy Verhofstadt, from the opposite extremes of the European Parliament.

It was a tactically boring speech that went into mind-wandering detail about regulations, agencies and safety rules. The important bit was that she went on at some length about the customs partnership, and why she was opposed to a customs union.

A customs union is what Jeremy Corbyn endorsed on Monday. The Labour leader seems to have discovered parliamentary opportunism late in his career. Theresa May responded on Wednesday with what looked like reckless bravado: “That would mean that we could not do our own trade deals and would actually betray the vote of the British people.”

Given that Wollaston and the soft-Brexit rebels are prepared to vote against her on this, I was surprised she didn’t give herself more room for manoeuvre. And in her speech at the Mansion House on Friday she reinforced her doomed position with sandbags of detail.

“It will all look very different by the time we get to the vote,” said another soft-Brexit Tory MP when I suggested the Government was heading for defeat. I don’t see how, given the icily polite response to the Prime Minister’s speech from the EU side.

Of course, Theresa May is setting out her negotiating position, just as Michel Barnier did this week with his draft text of the withdrawal agreement. But Barnier knows the numbers in the House of Commons just as we do. He is watching the customs debate here and has calculated that now is the moment to apply some pressure.

One insider thought that May had laid a “premiership-ending trap” for herself by ruling out a customs union, but we cannot be so sure. If she has to, would she not just give in and pretend she hadn’t? Just as she insists on calling the transition period after Brexit an “implementation period”, she would call a customs union a “customs partnership” and say it wasn’t a “betrayal” at all.

So it may be that when it comes to the “almighty crisis”, May will do whatever it takes to survive. The idea that she would go down fighting for a point of principle about customs arrangements that no normal person understands seems implausible to me.

The bottom line is what it has always been. Britain is likely to leave the EU with a not-very-good deal or no deal at all.

There are only two ways out of this choice. One is for the UK to change its mind. That requires a big shift in public opinion and Jeremy Corbyn’s support for a referendum to cancel Brexit. I don’t think either is likely, still less both.

The other is for Brexit to be postponed. That could be done if everyone agreed, but that would be possible only if the two sides were close to agreement and just needed another month or two to complete the ratification of the treaty.

Theresa May did enough in her Mansion House speech to survive another day. Week by incremental week, I suspect she will do enough to survive up to and beyond Brexit day too.

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