George Pascoe-Watson: The PM is preparing for yet another bruising encounter
Theresa May is about to go back into battle – not in Syria, but with Brussels.
-- THE INSIDER --
You’d be forgiven for thinking the Prime Minister had endured enough bruising encounters with world events in recent weeks. Not so. Britain’s premier is about to get back into her tank and face down her Brussels opponents in the next battle over Brexit. And it’s already getting pretty ugly.
The June EU summit is beginning to loom in peoples’ minds after the Easter break. Not that it was a break for Theresa May. She “came of age” by ordering RAF weapons strikes on Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles – and made it clear she’s no poodle of US President Donald Trump. She faced down calls to recall Parliament for their say. And her numbers rose. The Commonwealth Heads of Government summit – CHOGM – has limped lamely along, only augmented by an announcement of a possible ban on plastic straws (none of which are made in Britain).
The Home Office’s mishandling of the Windrush generation’s residency rights has overshadowed most of the recent week. In fairness, observers are beginning to see the characteristic that defines the PM more than any other – stickability.
I’ve written it many times. She absolutely believes in devotion to her duty to the UK. And the more she ploughs on, the more she is earning respect externally. But now a much more critical period begins for both Mrs May and indeed, the UK. Brussels – the European Commission and the EU’s negotiating team – are onto something. They have an asymmetric advantage over Britain’s customs union future and they know it.
The Customs Bill and the Trade Bill are both stuck in Parliament and can’t move forward until Mrs May conjures up a deal with the EU on Britain’s membership of the customs union. They both have amendments laid by Tory remainers which Mrs May needs to be defeated on the floor of the Commons. But she can’t be sure of Commons victory at report stage until she knows what deal she can strike with Brussels over transition period and beyond.
Her EU opponents – for that is what they are – know this only too well and are ratcheting up the heat. Hence the return this week to one-sided, anonymous briefing from the Commission rejecting out of hand her proposals for a Northern Ireland border with the EU. This effectively forces ministers and hard-working officials back to the drawing board to think again about a solution.
At the same time, Mrs May is under some difficulty in the Lords. It must be said the PM sees this week’s twin defeat on the Withdrawal Bill as “irritating” rather than anything else. But nonetheless, the work is energy-sapping. Failing to secure the Withdrawal Bill would mean seeking extensions from Brussels over the leaving date. Politically, that’s a no-no for Mrs May who has set the exit date as March 29 2019. Effectively, Peers are trying to tie Britain into the EU’s timetable, rather than Mrs May’s.
Mrs May will shortly summon her Brexit war Cabinet – there are now two war Cabinets, one for military action in Syria, one for leaving the EU. David Davis has been asked to prepare a new paper outlining Britain’s position on trade deals. Perhaps the most critical decision is over which customs option the UK goes for.
The PM will also summon her war Cabinet EUXT (SN) - the catchily-titled EU exit and trade (strategy and negotiations) sub-committee. Here’s where the reaction is to be found. And the signs are that it’s working well. It will be around this table that the big dogs of Mrs May’s Cabinet will find their zen with customs union, hard or soft borders and the transition period. From them, Tory MPs will take their cue – as most are now agreed “blue on blue” must be avoided.
Liam Fox wasn’t wrong when he said recently it was imperative that Conservative MPs of all persuasions “keep the eye on the prize”. By the end of May, the PM and her top team must make their choice in advance of the next Commons showdown.
The crunch vote will come later in the summer. Before then, of course, comes the difficult local election round in which it’s likely the Conservatives will be badly beaten in London. But there’s good reason to expect Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will falter outside the capital. A bad night for both could be spun. And crucially, for now at least, the feverish talk of leadership contests seems to have gone quiet.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.