Theresa May – exposed and vulnerable after her Irish gambit on regulation.
Since last June’s election, the Prime Minister’s Brexit priority has not been to deliver a comprehensive trade and security deal – important though that is to her – along the lines originally set out in her Party Conference speech last year. It has been to keep her party together and to survive in office. One of her means of doing so has been not to hold a Cabinet decision, nor apparently make one herself, that would resolve a crucial Brexit choice for the country.
This is whether or not post-Leave Britain is to go “EEA minus” (that’s to say, seek to keep its economic, social and regulatory model close to the EU’s) or instead to aim for “Canada plus” (in other words, a trade-and-services deal that allows a greater degree of distance). This week’s talks appear to have forced her to make a decision, albeit a partial one: namely, to seek to align regulation in some sectors of Northern Ireland’s economy with Ireland’s – and thereby the whole of the EU’s – and further, since the province cannot be treated differently from the rest of the UK in this regard, not just its economy but the whole country’s.
This was not agreed in Cabinet prior to May’s departure for Brussels. Nor did it last week take a definitive position on the post-implementation role of the European Court of Justice. The Prime Minister is therefore in a perilous position if the four main actors in the present drama – her Government, the Irish Government, the rest of the EU and the DUP – cannot reach agreement by the end of next week. The failure to get the DUP on board to date suggests a lack of bandwidth in Downing Street and among senior Ministers.
Iain Duncan Smith speaks for many pro-Brexit MPs when he suggests that the Government should prepare to take the WTO route. However, it is unlikely that the Commons as whole – some 70 per cent of which voted Remain in the referendum – is willing to take that position. The clear and present danger for May if no agreement is reached is that she will lead a Government unwilling to suspend negotiations, but unable to make them progress. This would drain her authority. Without the confidence either of the WTO-supporting hardline Brexiteers or the Single Market-sympathetic Remainers, she would be vulnerable to a leadership challenge.
David Davis – the man keeping the show on the road.
The Brexit Secretary has his critics – and then some. They say that his threats of a stand-up fight with the EU over talks sequencing came to nothing, that his early talk of quick trade deals has been proved wrong, and that the row with the DexEU Select Committee over his department’s work on the consequences of Brexit has revealed a chaotic organisation. Furthermore, his apparent willingness to resign if Damian Green is eased out has raised uncomfortable memories of the quixotic by-election that he forced in 2008.
Davis’s answer would be that the mishandled election manifesto of last June blew his negotiating plans apart. It left him without the Commons backing tgar he needed to hold up the negotiations. Futhermore, his friends say that the main difficulty in DexEU was caused by the weird decision to fire David Jones, who had done the best part of a year’s work in the department as a Minister of Statel. They also complain that he is out of a Number Ten Brexit policy-making loop masterminded by Jeremy Heywood and Ollie Robbins.
A sympathetic account is that the Brexit Secretary is now the main man keeping the Government’s show on the road. The Government has not yet lost a vote on his department’s EU Withdrawal Bill. He has struck up a workmanlike relationship with Michel Barnier. He has proved invaluable in squaring pro-Brexit Tory MPs with the Government’s negotiating position on money, transition and the role of the Court. And the two-times-leadership-candidate has been loyal to the woman who brought him back from the backbenches.
Indeed, Davis can now be considered the Cabinet’s main swing voter. On the one hand, he is clearly up for some limited form of regulatory alignment. On the other, he has very hardline views indeed on the ECJ. He didn’t make a big show of them in Cabinet last week, but they are none the less real. He has been fading in this site’s regular Next Tory leader survey, but he remains the most likely compromise candidate if May is ousted – though clearing up the consequent mess would look to be beyond his powers.
Boris Johnson – are we due a “Boris eruption?”
The Foreign Secretary was opposed to anything other than the briefest of transition periods. Though his statement that the EU could “go whistle” for money has been misinterpreted – he is not opposed to a proper meeting of Britain’s responsibilities – he undoubtedly favoured paying a minimal bill. His dramatic Daily Telegraph column, proclaiming “my vision for a bold, thriving Britain”, is hard to reconcile with big-scale regulatory alignement. And one of the main reasons why he declared and campaigned for Leave is his hostility to the practices of the ECJ – one shared by his wife, Marina Wheeler, who is an expert on the subject.
No wonder today’s Sun reports that Johnson is unhappy with this week’s events. ConservativeHome wonders if we are due another “Boris eruption” – even, potentially, his resignation. The Foreign Secretary is also preoccupied – to the point of obsession – with that famous £350 million for the NHS. He is sensitive to claims that he lied about it. He has pressed since his appointment for the money to be found. His emotional commitment to the liberal Brexit programme sketched out by Vote Leave during the referendum campaign should not be underestimated. Michael Gove, co-signatory to that joint letter to May, remains a fellow traveller.
Philip Hammond – back after a successful Budget to push for the softest Brexit possible.
The Chancellor is reportedly baffled and frustrated by claims that his aim is to stop Brexit. The Sun was even briefed before Party Conference that he had seen off a Treasury scheme to extend transition for ten years. But he has undoubtedly been the main force in Cabinet for a soft Brexit, favouring solutions as close to Customs Union membership as can be found – for which he pressed very hard during the summer.
His political position was so weak pre-Budget that little was heard from him for a while. Its presentational success has undoubtedly strengthened his hand again, and it must now be unlikely that he is moved in any reshuffle. This may have emboldened him: “No existing trade agreement, nor third-country access to the EU, could support the scale and complexity of reciprocal trade in financial services that exists between the UK and the EU,” he said yesterday in a speech.