The Brexit ‘inner cabinet’ met on Monday. It was meant to be an important meeting, one which made some real progress on deciding what kind of economic relationship with the EU the UK is seeking. Senior civil servants had been told that the crucial topic of the Irish border would be on the agenda. This is one of the hardest parts of the Brexit equation to solve, and the answer will reveal plenty about the kind of trade deal the UK is seeking and the trade-offs it is prepared to make.
But when the agenda for the meeting was circulated on Friday night, Ireland was not there. This left only data and security — the two least controversial of the nine questions that the Brexit cabinet is meant to address. As one member remarked to me afterwards: ‘We didn’t do the contentious stuff today.’
This fits a pattern. Theresa May has become so frightened of putting a foot wrong that she’s now extremely reluctant to confront any controversial issue. This is an exceedingly dangerous position for a Prime Minister. You can’t lead if you can’t make decisions. Her timidity has been exacerbated by the election. Her unusually bold call to go to the country four years early blew up in her face and as a result, she is more cautious than ever — at exactly the time when her country needs her to be most decisive.
Since the debacle of the lost majority, Conservatives have mostly refrained from complaining. Mrs May was needed to keep the party together and her departure would have triggered a fratricidal civil war; she had to stay in place to get over the first hurdle of the Brexit talks. But Tory patience is running out. One member of the Brexit inner cabinet has taken to warning people that the govern-ment’s Brexit policy-making ‘looks worse from the inside than the outside’.
The Prime Minister is either unwilling or unable to tackle the single biggest question facing the country: what will the ‘end-state’ relationship with the EU look like? We have barely more detail now than when she delivered her Lancaster House speech more than a year ago. Is this because May doesn’t dare to be specific, as she knows she’ll disappoint — at the very least — one wing of her party? Or because she can’t decide? Tories who complain that civil servants have captured the process are aiming at the wrong target. They are only filling a vacuum where the political leadership ought to be.
Mrs May must set out, in some detail, the kind of trade deal she is aiming for, and it was assumed until recently that she’d do it this month. But No 10 now says that the only Brexit-related speech planned is one she’ll deliver at the Munich Security Conference. This must change. If May can’t give a speech setting out what the UK wants, she can’t lead.
After an election campaign that would have finished off most leaders, Theresa May has remained as Prime Minister because she is meant to see Britain, and the Tory party, safely through Brexit. But this can’t be done by staying mute and waiting to see what the EU offers. If this is her strategy, the rationale for keeping her as Prime Minister begins to fall away. One member of the cabinet reports that it is embarrassing when your EU counterparts ask you what the UK wants, because you can’t answer. Without a proper negotiating position, it is impossible to build momentum behind it.
What makes this so frustrating is that there are now signs that the EU governments are prepared to engage constructively; there is far less of a desire to ‘punish’ Britain than in the immediate aftermath of the vote. The Belgians, normally among the more theological EU members, have, pragmatically, come out for a supercharged trade deal: ‘Canada ++’ in the jargon. The Italians have declared that it is ‘completely unrealistic’ to exclude financial services from the deal. But there’s no detailed UK proposal on how they should be included that the Italians, or anyone else, can rally around.
May’s trip to Davos was another missed opportunity. When she had the world’s attention she could have set out the UK’s stall and urged global business to lobby the EU to engage constructively with these proposals. She could have used her speech to sell Brexit Britain as a great place to do business, setting out the opportunities that there will be once this country is outside the EU. But instead she reached into her back catalogue and scolded the technology companies.
When Angela Merkel expresses her frustration that May won’t say what the UK wants, she is only saying what many ministers are thinking. Lord Bridges, who served as her Brexit minister until a few months ago, puts it starkly: ‘Four months on, and there are still no clear answers to basic, critical questions. All we hear, day after day, are conflicting, confusing voices.’
Britain is the country that is leaving and so the onus is on us to make clear what kind of relationship we’re now looking for. If, as Philip Hammond says, the Brexit negotiations are like a courtship, it is past time for the UK to declare its intentions.
It isn’t just European leaders who want May to say more: her own cabinet does too. One minister tells me that the current uncertainty ‘is driving us all mad’. There is a desire just to see a decision made, for May to lead. As this source puts it: ‘The making of the decision would be incredibly helpful’ as it would allow departments to start planning for Brexit properly and for the Tories to start honing the political argument for the deal May wants.
So far, the consensus has been that however bad the May premiership is, trying to change horses would be worse. One of those frequently tipped for the top job if May goes says that a leadership contest would be ‘like the Grand National – utter chaos, and no one will know who will come through in the end’.
Both sides of the Tory tribe took this view. Remainers saw her as preferable to the hardline Brexiteer who would likely succeed her, and Leavers thought she would get the job done. But that sense is slipping. As one denizen of the tearoom puts it: ‘The Brexiteers who were holding on to her for fear of something worse aren’t as motivated.’ This is partly why those MPs publicly criticising Mrs May have had so little pushback. Tories who have gone public with their criticisms of her are not being shunned in the way that those who tried to move against her after party conference were.
Then there is what one cabinet minister calls ‘the JRM question’. Since Jacob Rees-Mogg became leader of the European Research Group, the most powerful Tory eurosceptic lobby, its tone towards the government has changed quite markedly. It has become far more critical. This is loosening the bonds that tied the Eurosceptics to May. Just as importantly, it is making Tory MPs who voted Remain more willing to criticise the PM publicly. The Rees-Mogg broadsides give them cover to do so without looking like they are somehow trying to frustrate Brexit.
There is still time for her to change. To realise that she is stronger in relation to her cabinet than she realises. Every member of the Brexit inner cabinet knows that if they were to quit the government, they’d risk bringing down the whole house of cards —possibly even splitting the Tory party. This would hugely increase the chances of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and is a step that no Tory would take lightly. They are looking for leadership and would probably accept it — even if they disagree with it. If Mrs May announced that she had come to a series of decisions on the UK’s negotiating position, her audacity would carry the day. Leadership would bring its own reward.
After that, she needs an idea of the kind of country she wants Britain to be, because the government’s shrunken domestic programme offers no vision at all. May’s defenders advance two reasons for this. Brexit is all-consuming, they say. But Brexit also requires this country to think afresh about how it will make its way in the world. The last election went so wrong for the Tories, in part, because May thought Brexit was enough. It is not. Voters look for a leader with ideas — and worry when they find none. Brexit ought to provide a stimulus for domestic policy reform in much the way that the nation-defining events of the 20th century did. Equally, if the government had a clear vision for Brexit, and the opportunities it offered, the domestic policy would flow from that.
The second argument from May’s apologists is that a hung parliament makes radical legislation nigh-on impossible. But this confuses law-making with governing: plenty can be done without legislation. If May embraced Jeremy Hunt’s idea of a ten-year funding settlement for the National Health Service it wouldn’t need its own bill; it could simply be done via the Budget each year. This would put the Tories on the front foot rather than cowering in the corner as Labour attacks. The Tories should not be afraid to dare Labour to vote legislation down. Would Corbyn really whip his MPs to vote against a bill to ensure that planning permissions are lost if developers don’t build houses quickly enough?
Things are not critical yet. But they will be soon. In a few months, Theresa May will take her party into local elections and if she leads them into a series of historic defeats there will be a reckoning. Those pressing to act against her are now convinced that losses in these elections — expected to be particularly steep in London and Birmingham — will offer the best chance to garner enough signatures for a no-confidence vote. The opinion polls suggest the Tories are level pegging with Labour; the actual elections could suggest that they are in fact heading for disaster.
What should worry No 10 most about the past ten days is how many level-headed Tory MPs are beginning to think it is worth rolling the dice; that while a change of leader might be messy, things can hardly be worse than they are now. This is not mutiny, as such, it’s something more powerful: a growing conviction that this drift can’t go on and that it’s their job, as MPs, to ensure their party and country is given that direction. May can either provide that leadership herself — or lose her grip on the party and on power.