One can see how it could happen. David Lidington will mastermind a negotiation with Labour Soft Brexiteers and others. Michael Gove will provide Eurosceptic cover, and make the case for what emerges on Today and in the Commons. The negotiation will settle on formal Customs Union membership, or something so close to it as to make no difference. In the passive way that so defines her, Theresa May will swallow it. Lidington will tell her that, if she doesn’t, she will lose a no confidence vote, with a tiny band of fixated Remainer Conservatives, perhaps led by Dominic Grieve, abstaining – and so making the difference. Philip Hammond and other Cabinet Soft Brexiteers are already pushing this outcome and briefing bigger business to this effect.
On this site today, Stewart Jackson sets out the risk of such a course – nothing less than splitting the Conservative Party from top to bottom. The most crucial Tory actor in the talks with other parties and politicians is thus neither Gove nor even Lidington, but Julian Smith – though he is only one voice in that three-man team appointed for talks.
Such a formal endorsement of a softer Brexit – further concessions to Customs Union membership and new ones to Labour’s social model – would bear other perils, equally dramatic though less profound. First, even tacking on to it more alignment with the Single Market, thus bringing the proposed treatment of Great Britain into line with that of Northern Ireland, might not satisfy the DUP, which is a Leave party. Second, Jeremy Corbyn might not swallow this softer Brexit, even if it satisfied his party’s conditions for a deal. It would cramp a hard left Labour Government’s room for socialist manoeuvre. And he is temperamentally inclined to oppose the Tories at all costs. Furthermore, a Norwegian option is not compatible with ending free movement, to which lots of Labour MPs are opposed. One can see how a coalition of the Labour front bench and the ERG might find ways of sinking any such softer Brexit.
This morning, some are claiming that the Prime Minister is about to make exactly such a pivot – with the EU, that “rules-based organisation”, then rewriting the Withdrawal Agreement (which its pro-Remain British fan club currently tells us is impossible) to deliver the compromise. Others say that she won’t.
The most likely course still is that she hopes to continue her chicken game and suck politicians from other parties into supporting her deal. Another way of viewing the possible three man negotiating team is that Gove would act as a restraint on Lidington, teaming up with Smith to block any move towards formal Customs Union membership. The Environment Secretary is not currently a contender for the Conservative leadership, but though he is unpopular in the country he is indispensible in the Commons, as his swashbuckling performance in yesterday’s no confidence debate reminded us. And he is the most creative head of any Government department. He is the Government’s most eloquent voice and the Cabinet’s lead swing voter. A crushing weight of responsibility is descending on his shoulders.
Talk of Cabinet Ministers leads us to the Cabinet Leavers – those who voted for Brexit in the referendum: Steve Barclay, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Geoffrey Cox. Unlike Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, they didn’t resign over May’s deal (Barclay of course was not in place then).
There were arguments for and against them doing so. But it is indisputable that formal Customs Union membership is incompatible with the Conservative manifesto, any prospect whatsoever of deep and meaningful trade deals with non-EU countries, and the Brexit vision for which they campaigned. A big moment may be approaching for them, too – as well as for those who didn’t back Leave in the referendum but are now sympathetic to a Canada-type future, such as Liz Truss. She seems to have future leadership ambitions. There’s no doubt at all that Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt do so. But were they to nod reluctant assent to a Customs Union scheme, it is very unlikely indeed that whatever would be left of the Conservative membership would choose either of them to replace May.