James Forsyth

Message-free May given tough time by Marr

Message-free May given tough time by Marr
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The big Sunday of conference TV interview is a chance for a leader to set the tone for their party’s gathering. But Theresa May failed to seize that opportunity this morning. She was, oddly, bereft of a positive message on either Brexit or domestic policy and the interview ended up being dominated by Tory splits on Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

On Brexit, May stuck to the line that she doesn’t know what the EU’s objections to Chequers are. This is really stretching things. We know that the EU doesn’t like the Facilitated Customs Arrangement as it feels that it imposes burdens on them and gives the UK many of the benefits of the customs union while leaving it free to cut tariffs on the EU’s competitors. We also know that they think any common rulebook must apply to the conditions in which goods are made, eg social and environmental rules, as well as product standards. Then, there is the most fundamental objection, which Angela Merkel reiterated a few days ago, that you can’t have free movement in goods without accepting the other three freedoms of the single market. But May, who realistically can’t make any concessions at Tory conference, clearly thinks that this line can get her through the next days—and she wasn’t pinned down on any of this in this interview, so her calculation may well be correct. Interestingly, in response to Boris Johnson’s criticisms, she said she did ‘believe in Brexit’.

When the interview shifted to domestic policy, things didn’t get any easier for May. Indeed, they actually became harder. Andrew Marr peppered her with questions about the Windrush Scandal, and her culpability for it given that she was Home Secretary for six years. May was left repeating the government’s apology for what had happened.

May did talk briefly about her plans to levy a higher level of stamp duty on foreign buyers, and how that could help more British families get on the housing ladder. But there was no big new announcement that Marr would have felt obliged to ask her about. There was also a broader lack of a positive message about either Brexit or domestic policy. I suspect that this interview will have reinforced Tory concerns that they don’t currently have an adequate response to either Corbyn’s agenda or voters’ concerns.