Theresa May’s Brexit dilemma is becoming more acute. Last week, she failed to garner the support of the Brexit inner cabinet for a so-called ‘new customs partnership’ with the European Union. Even so, May can’t and won’t drop the idea. She’s convinced that it is critical for solving the Irish border issue, and thus unlocking a deal.
But the bad news for Mrs May is that opinion has hardened against her scheme (which would see the UK collecting tariff revenue for the EU even after Brexit). Boris Johnson has publicly attacked it as ‘crazy’ and in no way ‘taking back control’. Tellingly, Downing Street didn’t feel it could slap him down for this. Even those Eurosceptics with good personal relations with May, such as Iain Duncan Smith, are making it clear that they feel the new customs partnership would be a compromise too far. None of the six members of the Brexit inner cabinet who refused to back the scheme last week are likely to flip now — and anyway, No. 10 is keen to stress that this committee works by consensus, rather than by a simple majority.
Such is Mrs May’s predicament right now that even good news brings her problems. So, last week’s local election results — which were thoroughly respectable for a governing party — are now being adduced by Brexiteers as a reason for May to abandon her new customs partnership plan. Why, because, in crude terms, the elections confirmed that the Tory vote is increasingly a Brexit one.
It’s easy to mock the idea that the details of the UK’s future customs arrangements with the EU were uppermost in the minds of voters in, say, Pendle, when they went to vote last week. But there is a serious political point here. The Tory vote is increasingly in favour of Brexit. As the psephologist John Curtice has pointed out, compared with 2014, when these seats were last contested, the Tory vote was up by almost double digits in areas that had voted Leave by a margin of 55/45 or greater. By contrast, in heavily Remain places, the Tories made no progress.
These Leavers who have turned Tory might not be following every twist of the Brexit negotiations, but their support for the Tories is predicated on the government delivering something that looks and feels like Brexit. If May were to lose either David Davis or Boris Johnson over the deal, these voters would feel short-changed and the Tories would then be caught between two stools. They would have taken a hit among Remainers without firming up their support among Leave voters. This would, almost certainly, result in them losing power at the next election.
Theresa May’s closest advisers have a different view of where the risks lie. They are convinced that they don’t have the votes in parliament for ‘no deal’ — and they fear that Brussels knows that, too. They feel that they have to come up with solutions that the EU will accept. If they don’t, and it is ‘no deal’, they fear that parliament would park Britain in the European Economic Area and keep us in a customs union with the EU, so the UK would still be in the single market, free movement would continue and there would be very little taking back control at all.
Cue: electoral disaster for the Tories. Leave voters would feel cheated and the government wouldn’t be able to escape its share of the blame. Remain voters, for their part, might quite reasonably wonder why we had chosen to stay in so much of the EU but given up our say over the rules.
Wavering cabinet ministers can expect to hear a lot of this argument in the coming days: for Brexit’s sake, you have to agree to the new customs partnership. It might not be perfect, but it is better than the alternative.
There are several reasons to doubt this analysis. First of all, the new customs partnership has already been rejected by the EU. As one senior figure at the Department for Exiting the European Union tells me, ‘They are offended by it. They think, “you are a third country why should we trust you with our external border?” ’ Indeed, one of the lessons of these negotiations is that whenever Britain looks as if it is trying to carry on behaving as if it is an EU member after Brexit, Brussels reacts particularly badly.
The second issue is that the British government has a deeply ambivalent attitude to ‘no deal’ planning. No one should want ‘no deal’; it is clearly not the best outcome, but to conduct any negotiation seriously you need the other side to know that you’re prepared to walk away.
Our ‘no deal’ preparations are pitiful. The government, though, shows no sign of wanting to inject any urgency into the process. In a testament to just how inadequate the plans are, a good number of people in Whitehall are making sure that their concerns are down on paper, just in case there is ever a Chilcot-style inquiry into what went wrong.
This lack of preparation is encouraging those in the EU who think that the bloc’s approach should be to issue Britain with a choice between staying in a customs union or ‘no deal’. Mrs May must find a way to break this cycle. Visibly stepping up ‘no deal’ planning — as a negotiating tactic rather than because it is what she wants — is the most obvious way to do that.
The political challenge for the Tories on Europe is to deliver something that is clearly, recognisably Brexit but at the same time to avoid a level of economic disruption that would make it impossible for them to run a ‘don’t risk it’ campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in 2022. Achieving this will require both the UK knowing what it wants and persuading the EU to engage in constructive negotiation. Mrs May has an awful lot to do before next month’s European Council.