Theresa May has the perfect answer to all difficult questions: we don’t want to give away anything that will harm our position in the Brexit negotiations. No matter whether the information an MP is requesting has anything to do with Britain’s negotiating position: it’s a handy line to use when the answer is in fact ‘I don’t actually know’. The Prime Minister deployed this argument about not wanting to undermine the negotiations several times as she took questions from MPs in the Commons following her statement on last week’s European Council summit. She refused to give any further details on the sort of figures involved in the divorce bill negotiations when asked for ‘more transparency and openness with Parliament’ by Sir Edward Leigh, dodged questions on whether the Cabinet had discussed the future relationship with the EU, and even on whether the Cabinet was united in its Brexit vision.
There were some questions that the Prime Minister could quite reasonably dodge, such as one from Anna Soubry asking her to rule out there being no deal. May explained to Soubry and Jeremy Corbyn that ruling out a no deal would be the way to get a bad deal, but that she was confident that the negotiations were going sufficiently well that this wouldn’t ever arise.
May also cannot rule out a no deal scenario because of the impact it would have on Tory party unity, given the number of MPs who are already dissatisfied that the government doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of real preparations for no deal. But her statement appeared much more focused on her European audience than the one directly behind her on the green benches. She talked about the financial settlement in terms of honouring past commitments, saying ‘the UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership and that none of our EU partners should fear they will need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan as a result of our decision to leave’.
It is probably better to focus on the European audience, as thinking too much about those in Westminster will only highlight how divided the Cabinet is on the matter of Brexit. After the statement, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman was asked whether the Cabinet had ever discussed the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU. He merely said that Cabinet ‘talk regularly’ about all issues around Brexit, but that he wasn’t going to get into details on the discussions. So that’s a no, then: as this morning’s Sun reported, delaying Cabinet talks on this subject means May can avoid an almighty split in her government opening up. So it’s not just that she fears undermining her negotiating position with EU leaders: she also fears undermining her authority over her own ministers.