Mayday! How Theresa May Has Been Trapped By Her Enemies And Her Friends

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The European Union might have many flaws, but one of its great strengths is its ability to sense weakness. It is telling, then, that Michel Barnier didn’t mince his words on his trip to the Irish border this week as he made the case for a goods border in the Irish sea. This is something that Theresa May has said no British prime minister could ever accept, and it’s anathema to most of her cabinet colleagues, not to mention the Democratic Unionist party’s MPs on whom she relies for support. So why would Barnier return to this theme? Because even from Brussels, it’s clear what a bind Mrs May is in.

Not so long ago, she was hailed as the indestructible Maybot: the queen of all she surveyed. Now, she is so weakened that she is having not just to accommodate her antagonists but to promote them. Take the appointment of a new home secretary. She has clashed repeatedly with Sajid Javid over the years: he doesn’t share her views on immigration, or a host of other major issues. Amber Rudd might have disagreed with May on various things but felt she had to toe the line, that the price of admission was continuing May’s legacy at the Home Office. Now, ministers know that they don’t need to pay that price. In his first day in the job, Javid cheerily declared that he’ll be his own man.

May finds herself being pinned down not only by Barnier and Javid, but a host of others too. The House of Lords, Tory rebels, Brexiteer cabinet ministers and the DUP are all at it. The Tory Eurosceptics even published a 30-page dossier attacking her idea of a hybrid customs union. The Prime Minister’s challenge used to be deciding which way to move. Now, she will be wondering if she can move in any direction at all.

The government this week lost its ninth vote in the Lords on its latest Brexit bill, and it’s starting to matter. One of the amendments passed this week would take ‘no-deal’ off the table and enable parliament to send the government back to the negotiating table if it was unhappy with the agreement reached. This removes May’s bargaining power and encourages the EU to cause all sorts of mischief, playing parliament off against the executive. One influential Tory peer tells me that the Lords is becoming more assertive because of May’s weakness: it senses that the government doesn’t have the numbers in the Commons so more of its amendments are likely to survive.

And this is another problem for May: even the House of Commons is becoming less biddable on Brexit. Tory MPs who a few months ago had effectively given up on trying to substantially soften Brexit are now preparing to do just that. Their aim is to defeat the government on the issue of ‘a customs union’ with the EU after we leave. I understand that when the whips have tried to talk these rebels round, they have received short shrift. Julian Smith, the chief whip, has warned cabinet colleagues that he doesn’t have the votes to defeat a customs union amendment.

This, in turn, has made Brexiteer cabinet ministers more fretful than at any other point in the process. Once they believed in No. 10’s grip on the process. Now they don’t. At the time of the December deal, May’s political team gave Brexiteers various assurances about what the agreement committed the UK to. These assurances haven’t held up. Ministers don’t believe they were deliberately misled. Rather, they think that No. 10 is being moulded like playdough by the civil service, which is guiding May towards its preferred outcome.

Hence the concern about the influence of Olly Robbins, the PM’s chief Europe adviser, who is telling ministers what the EU will and won’t accept. They are beginning to wonder whether his advice is truly impartial — or simply a summary of the kind of deal the civil service wants. As one well-connected Brexiteer warns, May ‘is asking people to take a lot on trust from him’.

Scepticism is also growing around her proposal for a hybrid customs partnership with the EU. May describes it as the ideal compromise, maintaining frictionless trade but allowing Britain to strike its own trade deals. It’s a complex idea that would see the UK set its own tariff rates, while collecting tariff revenues on the European Commission’s behalf. But can it ever work?

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