Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
When it comes to Brexit, this Conservative Party Conference is really just about the Government trying to tread water. With its Brexit policy under attack from all sides, this was never going to be an easy few days for Theresa May. Yet compared to last year’s conference, the event might be considered a success if her voice holds up and she manages to get through her speech without being handed a P45 – and with the slogan still on the wall. Her speech tomorrow should mainly be about domestic policy, but here’s what she should look to do in the parts of her text about Brexit.
First, she should keep the flag wrapped firmly around her shoulders. After the humiliation of Salzburg and Donald Tusk’s declaration that the economic aspects of Chequers “will not work”, the Prime Minister responded by demanding that the EU shows Britain “some respect”. This language plays hugely well in the UK, and will doubtless work even better in a room full of Conservative activists. I’ve been struck over the past week by how many friends and acquaintances, particularly those who were not Leavers, are starting to argue spontaneously that the EU is treating the UK badly.
Second, she should avoid the temptation to get into a slagging match with the EU. Her language needs to remain prime ministerial, and she should avoid any cheap jokes. The Foreign Secretary’s speech yesterday caused a wave of (partially confected) outrage across Europe. Theresa May needs to strike a different tone.
Third, the Prime Minister must also avoid escalating the tensions within the Conservative Party. That means no cheap gags about Boris Johnson. But it also means a call for unity and an end to the ongoing quasi-civil war being conducted on Twitter between Tory Leave and Tory Remain MPs. She needs to try to bring the party together, not exacerbate existing tensions.
Fourth, she should try to empathise with those who have concerns about her policy. She should accept, as Dominic Raab did in his Conference speech, that Chequers is probably not anyone’s dream plan for Brexit – being too close to the EU for some and too distant for others. What she should try to do is level with her activists and members and acknowledge that she has heard their concerns. Too often over recent weeks, Downing Street has seemed oblivious to the legitimate concerns that many have expressed about Chequers.
Fifth, May needs to show flexibility and soften her uncompromising stance. She doesn’t need to retreat from Chequers but she can say that she is not wedded to the dot on every ‘i’ and the cross on every ’t’ of the plan. Put it this way, perhaps: “I know Chequers was painful for many people in this party. They questioned why we had to compromise so much. So let me be clear – I’ve heard those concerns and I’m open to adjusting some aspects of my plan if people have solutions which achieve the same aims in different ways”.
What else will she do? We can expect a pretty defiant rejection of the possibility of any second referendum. She will surely also promise to step up preparations for No Deal, insisting that Northern Ireland can’t be part of the EU’s customs territory. I expect we will hear that no British Prime Minister could ever accept a Brexit that divided this country. She will also remind the conference hall of her own red lines and insist that though she didn’t campaign to Leave, she is determined to deliver it.
What comes next? This conference speech won’t shift the dial on Brexit. Neither will any of the fringe rallies – whether from Conservatives for a so-called People’s Vote or those demanding “Chuck Chequers”. We are getting to the crunch point in the negotiations but nothing will really move until after ministers get back from Birmingham. Then we should watch out for the detail of the Government’s proposal for the regulatory aspects of the Northern Ireland backstop – something we still haven’t seen. After the Conference season is closed, and Parliament is back in session, both sides will be keen to get things moving again.
Meanwhile, the Brexit Secretary is likely to emerge from the Conference period politically strengthened. His platform speech yesterday was well-delivered but also struck a consensual note. He opened with a call for tolerance and respect from both sides of the referendum debate. Raab went on to admit Remain campaigners “made some important arguments and highlighted difficulties that some on my side were too quick to dismiss”. That’s the sort of language which is needed to help bring the Conservative party and the country back together again.
In his speech, Raab claimed to be pragmatic and not dogmatic about Brexit. That attitude of pragmatism will be key over the next few weeks as we get to the end stage of the Article 50 Brexit negotiations. With no breakthrough in sight, and passions running high on both sides, we can expect things to go right to the wire. Salzburg saw tensions reach new heights. But things were always going to reach a crunch point with plenty of theatrics.
Perhaps the drama of Salzburg will actually allow the air to clear a bit. Yet it’s impossible to predict exactly how things will pan out. While No Deal seems a growing and real possibility, the most likely outcome is still that some form of agreement is reached. Whatever happens, expect the next few weeks and months to be full of Brexit bumps and turns.