The Budget this Wednesday represents this government’s best, and perhaps its last, chance to regain the political initiative. Ever since the launch of the Tory election manifesto, Theresa May has been buffeted by the political weather. The past few weeks have been particularly bad. It hasn’t rained on her but poured, leaving her in urgent need of a Budget boost.
Already this month, two cabinet ministers have had to resign. A third — who happens to be Theresa May’s most important ally — remains under Cabinet Office investigation. The Brexit optimism that followed her Florence speech is ebbing away. The sense that European leaders would declare in December that ‘sufficient progress’ had been made in the Brexit talks to move on to trade and transition has been replaced by a mounting fear that deadlock will remain. Government insiders who were optimistic after the last EU Council now complain that the 27 are toughening their position on the divorce bill.
If the talks fail to move on to the next stage in December, the May government will be further weakened. On both wings of the Tory party, there will be concern that the Prime Minister is no longer best placed to secure a good Brexit deal for Britain. Meanwhile in the Commons, the government faces a nightly slog to get a clean EU withdrawal bill through.
It is telling — and worrying — that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two leaders of the campaign for Brexit, are so alarmed about the government’s preparations for it. For two cabinet ministers to sit down and write a private joint memo to the Prime Minister, which was sent in such a way as to avoid the usual official channels, is almost unprecedented. But for the two ministers concerned to have been a pair who fell out in the most dramatic way possible nearly 18 months ago makes you realise just how worried they must be.
I understand that their principal concern is that preparations for Britain leaving the single market and the customs union, even after a transition, are inadequate.