James Forsyth James Forsyth

May’s exit strategy

She talks about having a purpose beyond Brexit but the Tory party just wants her to sort out the succession

Nearly all Tory MPs now agree Theresa May should stay on as Prime Minister. She must get the party through Brexit, they say. A leadership contest now would risk splitting the party over the European issue. One senior Tory who was agitating to depose May back in July has told me that he has now decided it would be best if she stays until 2019.

But this desire to keep her in place for Brexit should not be confused (especially not by Mrs May) with a desire to see her fight the next election. The number of Tories prepared to even contemplate following her into another battle remains vanishingly small. Memories of her performance in the general election are far too vivid, and painful, for that.

So if Brexit is her main job, how is it going? The negotiations have certainly hit an impasse — but they were always going to at this stage. All EU states have an interest in getting as much money out of Britain as possible, while no British government would want to agree an exit bill without some guarantees on the nature of the future relationship. This means that the current game of diplomatic chicken was inevitable.

There has been a disappointing lack of British ideas in areas other than the so-called ‘divorce bill’. The government’s various position papers were fine, as far as they went. But, when reading them, one can’t escape the feeling that had these documents been produced faster, negotiations might have been framed in the way that the UK wants. As one of those deeply involved in the Brexit process admits: ‘All these things could have been said last year’. Even cabinet ministers admit, privately, that the papers are strikingly thin.

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