James Forsyth James Forsyth

A Brexit deal depends on Tory unity

Theresa May can only start negotiating properly once she has squared things with her own side

In a hung parliament, recess takes on a particular importance for the government. It is a chance for ministers to travel, free from the fear that they might be called back for a crunch vote at any moment. Explaining to your European hosts, for instance, that you have to cancel all meetings with them and go home now, or else the government might fall, doesn’t send quite the right message.

Helpful though it is, recess will get ministers only so far. Those doing the rounds of European capitals this week still don’t have a detailed Brexit position to sell to their counterparts. This is a problem. Next month’s European Council meeting is expected to set out the Commission’s mandate for the next stage of the negotiations, which will cover any UK-EU trade deal. Once these guidelines have been agreed, getting them changed will be nigh-on impossible.

Yet still Theresa May doesn’t appear to be in a rush. Several members of the Brexit inner cabinet expected that their ‘away day’ — where they are supposed to thrash out the details of the UK’s negotiating position — would take place before parliament returns on Tuesday. But it isn’t going to happen until the end of next week. If the Brexit inner cabinet can come to an agreement then, which is far from certain, that will still need to be taken to the full cabinet before May publicly sets out the government’s view.

Those close to May justify this timetable, saying that any deal with the EU will need the support of pretty much every Conservative MP to pass through the Commons. They argue that the willingness of the Labour party to oppose John Major in the 1993 Maastricht confidence vote shows the opposition will never miss an opportunity to bring down a prime minister, even at the risk of diplomatic chaos.

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