I revealed back in July that the Prime Minister intended to spend the summer pursuing a “charm offensive” in the hope of quelling widespread opposition to her Chequers plan. The opening stage, targeted at winning over Association chairmen and persuading them to act as ambassadors for the plan to their local members, was somewhat hit and miss.
Today the latest phase of May’s campaign landed on the doormats of Party members around the country: a three-page letter from the Prime Minister making the case for her change of plan. It is accompanied by a page of endorsement quotes from a mix of Cabinet ministers and other prominent Conservatives.
I’ve enclosed the full text of the letter below for readers to peruse.
First, a few thoughts on its meaning and implications:
- The leadership evidently realises the situation it created for itself, but is struggling to catch up with it. May is at pains to say that she appreciates there is a problem – “I know that some people are concerned “…”I am well aware of the strong feelings members of our Party have…”. But this is August. It is over a month since the Chequers summit, which somehow Downing Street appears not to have expected to produce any discontent, and the Prime Minister is still having to work to explain what she is doing and why to her own Party members, still less to the wider electorate. When you’re reduced to having to write to them all in the hope of persuading them that your scheme is “in no sense a concession to [the EU’s] demands”, it isn’t going well.
- Letters like this are very unusual. We’ve already had two mass emails to Conservative members about Chequers, as well as those extraordinary in-person and conference call briefings of local association officers, which are not normal occurrences. Adding this letter on top is an indication of the degree of trouble in which the Prime Minister finds herself.
- There’s little sign that the “charm offensive” is working so far. The proposal was instantly unpopular with many Party members, and the twin failure to keep key Cabinet ministers on board or to foresee that any sales work would need to be done to “polish” the, ahem, offering made things worse, with opposition to Chequers growing as time went by. It’s questionable as to whether a letter repeating the same arguments will have a very great impact, particularly if discontented Tories are not just unhappy with the plan itself but are also losing faith in the Prime Minister as a result. A lengthy report by Buzzfeed, published this week, is the latest investigation to corroborate what ConservativeHome has been saying since the outset.
- The letter even has the potential to cause more offence than charm. In part, that’s because those who’ve already heard these messages and found them unpersuasive are unlikely to relish their repetition. Then there’s the resource element – Conservatives who pay for their memberships, work hard to fundraise, and campaign hard, often on a shoestring, are effectively being propagandised using their own money, at a cost somewhere north of £70,000 for a mailshot to all members (NB £70,000 was my estimate based on membership numbers and the cost of postage – I’m told a bulk-mailing discount means the true figure is less, but no-one will give me a number beyond somewhere between “more than half” and this estimate). Ordinary members and larger donors might be surprised to see their money used in this way.
- It’s good to talk, but only when you’ve got something persuasive to say. It’s interesting to see the Prime Minister invite members to write in with “any questions or comments” about the Chequers plan. I’ve seen some of the correspondence that has already been exchanged between members and the centre, and the responses received have been universally bland, often simply copying and pasting arguments that have already been sent out as press releases and mass emails. As you can imagine, getting such a discourteous reply from Downing Street or from one’s own Party is frustrating or even insulting for committed Conservatives who are seeking to express their deep concern about what they believe to be a serious error.
- The endorsements by her colleagues are not completely resounding. I wrote recently for The Times that close association with Chequers, and with the Prime Minister, poses a reputational threat to ambitious ministers – a theory that was borne out when approval ratings for the whole Cabinet fell after the plan’s publication. One can imagine some reluctance in putting one’s name to this new letter – indeed, some are notable by their absence – and the quotes aren’t exactly overwhelming. Most keep a bit of distance, referring to “this plan”, “this vision”, “this deal”, with only the Chancellor taking ownership of it as “our plan”. The praise is often distinctly mild – eg Dominic Raab (“this is a credible vision”), Michael Gove (“Under this plan, we will leave the European Union”), Syed Kamall (“This proposal demonstrates that we are willing to compromise…I hope the Commission…engage with it seriously”), and Rob Semple (“It is…incumbent on the Party that we support the Prime Minister”).
Here’s the full text of the letter (emphasis in bold is original to the letter, not added by me):
In the referendum on 23 June 2016 – the largest ever democratic exercise in the United Kingdom – the British people voted to leave the European Union. And that is what we will do.
We will take back control of our money, laws, and borders and begin a new exciting chapter in our nation’s history.
It now falls to us all to write that chapter. That is why, over the last two years, I have travelled up and down the country listening to views from all four nations of our United Kingdom and every side of the debate.
One thing has always been clear – there is more that binds this great country together than divides it. We share an ambition for our country to be fairer and more prosperous than ever before. We are an outward-facing, trading nation. We have a dynamic, innovative economy. And we live by common values of openness, the rule of law and respect for others.
Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to deliver on that ambition – strengthening our economy, our communities, our union, our democracy and our place in the world – while maintaining a close friendship and strong partnership with our European neighbours. But to do so requires pragmatism and compromise from both sides.
I wanted to write to you, as a member of the Conservative Party, to explain how the Government is delivering on the result of the referendum, and the pledges we made at the general election, to leave the European Union and build a strong new relationship with the EU from outside.
Last month. the European Union (Withdrawal) Act received Royal Assent and became law. We will leave the EU on 29 March next year – and our negotiations with the EU on the terms of our withdrawal arc at an advanced stage.
However, our negotiations on our future relationship have reached an impasse. The two options on offer from the EU at the moment are not acceptable to me, or to the United Kingdom.
The first, a standard free trade agreement for Great Britain – with Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and parts of the single market – would break up the UK. As a proud Unionist, I am very clear that it would be unacceptable.
And the second, membership of the customs union plus an extended version of the European Economic Area (EEA), would mean free movement, vast annual payments and alignment with EU rules across the whole of our economy, which would not be consistent with the referendum result.
I remain clear that no deal is better than a bad deal – and we are stepping up our ‘no deal’ preparations. But the best path to delivering Brexit – and the best outcome for the country – is to secure a deal which works for the whole United Kingdom. We therefore need to get the EU to consider a third option, but they will only do that if we put forward proposals they find credible.
This was the challenge that confronted the Cabinet when we met at Chequers recently The proposal we agreed and which we have subsequently published in a White Paper (available at www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-future-relationship-between-the-united-kingdom-and-the-european-union) honours the result of the referendum, maintains the constitutional and economic integrity of our United Kingdom, and sets us on course for a productive relationship with our closest trading partners:
- We will take back control of our borders, with an end to free movement. EU citizens will no longer have the unfettered ability to come to the UK to seek work.
- We will take back control of our money, with no more vast annual sums paid to the EU. We will be free to spend that money on our priorities instead – like our long-term plan for the NHS.
- We will take back control of our laws ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom. UK courts will no longer be able to refer cases to the ECJ, and the UK Supreme Court will be the highest legal authority in the land.
- We will leave the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. This will give us the freedom to design new policies that work for our rural and coastal communities.
- We will be free to operate our own independent international trade policy. The whole of the UK will be outside the Customs Union and Single Market – free to sign trade deals with countries around the world.
- We will have friction-free trade in goods with our nearest trading partners in the EU. British businesses will be able to import and export goods across the EU frontier without impediment, ensuring that the just-in-time supply chains that underpin high skilled manufacturing jobs across the country will be able to continue without disruption.
- There will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will remain one United Kingdom with a single internal market.
- We will continue to co-operate on security matters, while at the same time operating a fully independent foreign and defence policy, working closely with our EU and NATO allies.
This vision for our future relationship with the EU will be very challenging for the EU – it is in no sense a concession to their demands. I have been very clear that we are rejecting the two models they have put forward. Instead, we are asking them to accept a bespoke model which meets the unique requirements of the United Kingdom.
A key part of that bespoke model is the creation of a free trade area on goods between the UK and the EU. This would protect the uniquely integrated supply chains and ‘just-in-time’ processes which have developed over the last 40 years, and the jobs and livelihoods dependent on them. It would ensure that businesses on both sides can continue operating through their current value and supply chains. It would avoid the need for customs and regulatory checks at the border, and mean that businesses would not need to complete costly customs declarations. And it would enable products to undergo only one set of approvals and authorisations in either market, before being sold in both.
This free trade area requires a common rulebook for goods. I know this is an element of the proposals about which Party members have raised a number of questions – so let me address them directly. The common rulebook would cover only those rules necessary to provide for frictionless trade at the border. This is necessary to maintain the trust required to move goods across the border without any checks, helping British businesses and consumers alike.
And there are other reasons why this is the right thing to do:
- The rules on goods are long established – the last substantial change was in 1987.
- Many of the rules are based on international standards set by bodies that we will still have a seat on and be able to influence after we have left the EU.
- British businesses which export goods to the EU have been clear with us that they will continue to follow its rules in order to continue selling into the European market.
- Importantly, any changes to our rules will be subject to a Parliamentary lock – meaning our Parliament, directly accountable to the British people, will decide whether to adopt new rules or to reject them and diverge from the EU on goods, accepting the implications that could have for market access.
I know that some people are concerned that this common rulebook will stop us doing trade deals. I can assure you this is not the case – and I would not be proposing it if it would. Signing up to a common rulebook on goods would mean we could not drop our regulatory standards for goods as part of the new trade deals we sign with other countries – but that is something we have been clear we do not want to do, in order to protect British consumers. And we would still be able to make a competitive offer to new trading partners – with the freedom to set our own tariffs, set our own quotas, and reduce other non-tariff barriers such as simplifying customs processes.
These close arrangements on goods should sit alongside looser new ones for services and digital, giving the UK the freedom to chart its own path in the areas that matter most for our service-based economy.
I am well aware of the strong feelings members of our Party have on this important national issue. That is why I asked my team to arrange a number of briefing sessions for Chairmen of Conservative Associations at 10 Downing Street, and why I was glad to take part in a conference call with Association Chairmen to outline the Government’s plan and to answer questions about it directly. If your Chairman was able to join one of those sessions, I hope he or she has fed back to you the points which were covered. The Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis, and I are always keen to hear the views of Party members, so if you have any questions or comments about the Government’s proposals – now or at any time – please do write to us at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, 4 Matthew Parker Street, London SW1H 9HQ.
As Conservatives, we should be proud of the role we are playing at this crucial time for our country. We are the Party which gave the British people their say in how they are governed. We are the Party which respects the decision they made. We are the Party which will take the UK out of the European Union next March. And we are the Party which will secure a strong, secure, and prosperous future for the United Kingdom as an independent country standing tall in the world while maintaining a deep and friendly relationship with our closest neighbours.
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party
P.S. You can find more information about our proposals, along with a Q&A which you can download and use locally, on the Party website at www.conservatives.com/ourbrexitplan’
And here is the page of endorsements: