Reviewing the week: Post-conference hangover for Theresa May

Here’s our take on this week’s key issues for the Prime Minister and her Government 

Following a good conference and a more comfortable-looking PM (who doesn’t look comfortable at the best of times), Theresa May is suffering a bit of a post-conference political hangover. No one is surprised that Brexit has been dominating the political news this week, most recently with twitchy Brexiteers seemingly not at ease with the PM’s attempted assurances on a customs union after Britain leaves. Downing Street ‘insisting’ that a post-Brexit customs union would be “time limited” is not soothing these concerns. Hard-line Brexit enthusiasts don’t want even a temporary customs union and hard-line Remainers want one in its entirety. With EU leaders hardening their negotiation stance yet again, all sides are having a sharp intake of breath in the Conservative Party. No change there then.

After Mrs May’s Brexit cabinet briefing on Thursday, the BBC has reported on several prominent Cabinet Ministers who have refused to explicitly endorse the PM’s plan, namely International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey. This isn’t what the PM and her team wanted to hear. Given a less fractious gathering in Birmingham than anticipated, yet more cracks are emerging in the cabinet (all eyes are on Andrea Leadsom next). Despite McVey saying she didn’t want to add to “speculation” on the topic, she’s done precisely that.

And that’s the key word. Speculation.

Speaking of which, the prospect of a hard-border with Ireland still haunts the spectrum of Brexit and the raw emotional aspect of this is saturating the whole show. May needs to get a grip on this and play the seemingly impossible game of keeping all sides happy. She had better do it fast because the clock is ticking and she might face further resignations.

Importantly, this repair work also means looking after the DUP. Today they have indicated they might withdraw legislative support for the Tories in the Commons if they don’t deliver on their promise for a Brexit for the “whole of the United Kingdom”. This is the most serious flexing of the DUP’s muscles since last year’s post-election deal. The DUP message is clear: Don’t treat Northern Ireland any differently to the rest of the UK, we’re not just some bargaining chip, we want respect in this process.

Heightening speculation (there’s that word again) is today’s release of No Deal Brexit contingency papers. Among other nightmares, they contain stark prospects for the Eurostar being suspended and Ireland’s single electricity market ceasing to operate. The papers also highlight implications for consumer rights and safety stands for rail services.

But it isn’t just Brexit giving the government a pounding headache, there’s also a growing rebellion among Tory MPs on universal credit. The levels of disquiet over this controversial flagship policy have led the Work and Pensions Secretary to admit to her colleagues some families will lose out on up to £200 per month, according to The Times. This is another issue the PM needs to nip in the bud, particularly after her ‘opportunity’ theme in Birmingham last week. With a growing contingent of MPs unhappy and Sir John Major putting the boot into the policy describing it as a new poll tax-style dilemma, something is going to have to give. That solution is cold hard cash.

The scheme needs more money to make it work, you can’t do it on the cheap.  With a welfare change this massive, it has to be funded properly, otherwise it will be doomed. Politically, this would be gold dust for the Labour Party. This makes it likely that the Chancellor may bite the bullet and scrap the Tory pledge to axe the income tax cut so that he can plough more cash into universal credit. A risky move, for sure, but necessary if the Conservatives want universal credit to be a success. Breaking a pledge such as this will cause major controversy in his party.

This week has shown that the PM still has her work cut out. Time to double down, reach for the hangover tablets and ride it out.

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