James Forsyth

Theresa May needs a Brexit back-up plan

Theresa May needs a Brexit back-up plan
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Since Chequers, the UK has been making a big diplomatic push to try and move the Brexit talks along. As I say in The Sun this morning, this has had some success. Inside government, the view is that the chances of a deal are inching up. There is also cautious optimism that the British message on the Irish backstop, that a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is unacceptable, has finally been understood.

But Mrs May hasn’t had a breakthrough yet. There is no sign of the European Commission moving away from its position that the four freedoms of the single market can’t be separated.

Number 10 has put its faith in the member states being more pragmatic than the Commission—which is why May and her ministers are travelling around Europe trying to sell her plan directly to national capitals. For this reason, the Salzburg summit in September, where May will get the chance to talk to the leaders of the 27 member state directly, is vital. The UK side’s hope is that this meeting will prepare the ground for a special council in November which would sign off on the withdrawal deal and agree a political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

The leaders of the member states will be more understanding of May’s political predicament than the Commission has been. There are also several countries that are becoming increasingly concerned about what happens if the UK crashes out without a deal. But this won’t mean they’ll simply accept Chequers. Instead, they will try and help May by giving her cover to make future concessions. Or, enable her to delay making these concessions until parliament has voted through the withdrawal agreement, which will oblige the UK to pay the EU £39 billion but also guarantees the transition period.

May should tread with care, though. Tempting as it may be to kick the difficult issues down the road, once the UK has agreed to pay the money its leverage in these negotiations is severely reduced. May should want the political declaration to be as clear as possible about the future UK/ EU trading relationship.

She must also be careful about making more concessions. As one Cabinet Minister warns, ‘That’s when it gets really dangerous’. When I asked this minister how much room for manoeuvre they thought May had, they replied ‘it is close to zero’.

For these reasons, May needs a worked up, back-up plan. She can’t afford to be drawn into a negotiation where she keeps having to give ground. There also won’t be time to go back to the drawing board after Salzburg; the withdrawal deal will have to be ready to be voted on by parliament in January at the latest.