Theresa May is becoming the rollercoaster prime minister. In less than two months last year, she went from a 20-point lead in the opinion polls to losing her parliamentary majority. Now in an only slightly longer period, she has gone from celebratory handshakes in Brussels to a potentially serious breakdown in Brexit negotiations.
Mrs May had claimed in December that there was “a new sense of optimism now in the talks”, after agreeing an initial withdrawal agreement. But on Wednesday, she accused Brussels of reshaping that same agreement into a text that “ no UK prime minister could ever agree to”.
The European Commission’s treaty draft capped three difficult days for the prime minister, in which the Labour party came out in favour of a customs union with the EU, her foreign secretary Boris Johnson made insensitive remarks about the Irish border, and former prime minister John Major called for a free parliamentary vote on Brexit.
One pro-EU Labour MP said it was the “definitely” the best week since the referendum for anti-Brexit and soft Brexit campaigners. “It feels for the first time like things are shifting . . . We’re having the arguments we should have had before the referendum,” he said.
“It feels very febrile,” said a Conservative junior minister. “She’ll last until the local elections [on May 3] and then we’ll take the temperature.”
Mrs May’s dilemma is clear. In order to agree a workable Brexit deal, she will have to disappoint some of her MPs. But in order to pass a deal through parliament without a majority, she cannot disappoint more than a dozen of them for long.
Until now, she has chosen to lean towards her party’s hard Brexiters — who have a caucus of at least 60 MPs — rather than the pro-EU faction, which is estimated at closer to 20. Both groups have so far remained relatively sanguine about the terms of post-Brexit transition, and the framework for future regulatory alignment with the EU. But both are now becoming anxious about the customs union and the lack of progress on the Irish border question.
Mrs May hopes to retake the initiative with a speech on Brexit on Friday, setting out largely what was agreed by senior cabinet ministers at a meeting at Chequers last week. Yet the changed context has raised expectations. One Tory MP said: “If she doesn’t play a blinder on Friday, she’s in trouble.” Another added: “I just don’t see how she can [play a blinder]. Indeed it may well have to be a speech in which she concedes certain things further.”
Mrs May’s main framework — of regulatory alignment in some sectors but not others — has been dismissed by Donald Tusk, the EU council president, as “pure illusion”. Brussels also appears to have tired of the UK’s vague solutions to the question of the Irish border. The Department of Exiting the EU is adamant on its two preferred options: a comprehensive trade agreement that negates the need for border inspections, or frictionless, high-tech checks. But it will not publish any such detail until after the prime minister’s speech.
On Wednesday, Downing Street tried to downplay some of the concern around the EU’s draft. “It would be surprising if at this point we did agree on everything,” said Mrs May’s official spokesman. “It is just a draft text.”
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, sent Conservative members of parliament a letter seeking to reassure them that the negotiations were progressing well and Britain was not wavering in its position.
But government officials acknowledged that the UK still accepted that a fallback option for avoiding a hard border with Ireland should be in the exit treaty — a principle it agreed with the EU in December. That stance raises the question of whether Britain will be able to dilute Wednesday’s text into language that is acceptable in Westminster and Ulster.
Gradually, Mrs May’s balancing act is becoming more difficult. The local elections in May could see the Conservatives lose control of totemic London councils, Westminster and Wandsworth. Shortly after, MPs are expected to vote on amendments to the trade and customs bills, which would effectively keep Britain in a customs union with the EU. Within months, they are also due to vote on the final withdrawal agreement.
Her opponents feel emboldened. “I just don’t see how this is resolvable,” said the pro-EU Labour MP. “I thought all along she was going to tack to the centre. Instead, she’s going for broke, which can only lead to catastrophe.”
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