An uncomfortable impasse has been reached on Brexit negotiations over the Northern Ireland border issue, but can Number 10’s charm offensive stop a rebellion of Tory MPs and the risk of damaging cabinet resignations…?
Dominic Raab, the affable Brexit Secretary, had a bumpy ride on his trip to Brussels yesterday as unscheduled crunch talks with the EU ended in under an hour. Raab’s meeting with Michel Barnier ceased with a lack of consensus on the highly contentious Ireland border issue, which is fuelling yet more anticipation over increasingly likely cabinet-level resignations. The clamour for a rebellion on the PM’s deal is being heightened by a bullish call from David Davis, coupled with the prospect of a leadership contest. It’s been reported that 44 of the 48 letters from Tory MPs required for a leadership contest have been signed.
Never one to pull his punches, Davis is on manoeuvres. This is risky at this stage given the Conservative Party is split on virtually everything related to Brexit. As an ex-SAS man he knows the value of attack. Yet it still begs the question, what does he hope to achieve? And where is his broader support coming from? Stern language about the beleaguered Chequers deal being “completely unacceptable” has set the battlelines. However, it’s uncertain whether he really wants the top job, or whether he’s simply planting a flag on an issue. The next 24 to 48 hours will flush that strategy out.
As we speculated last week, cabinet ministers such as Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey are looking like quitting – a momentum bolstered by rumours that arch-Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom isn’t far behind them. She may even go first. Leadsom is holding a meeting in her Commons office this evening, and The Times reports we may see a series of resignations tomorrow. It’s going to take something pretty strong from the PM to take the edge off of these pending resignations. And that’s not looking likely at the moment, as the UK Government is making firm preparations for a No Deal exit from the EU.
Three members of the Cabinet (all in weighty positions) leaving en masse has catastrophic implications for Mrs May’s leadership and the sustainability of the current Government.
Adding to the mix, the DUP is hardening its position following Sammy Wilson’s intervention last week. Now, Arlene Forster, DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has officially made it clear that her party will not accept a “dodgy” deal with Northern Ireland being used as a bargaining chip to stay in the customs union. Theresa May’s administration absolutely cannot survive without DUP support in the Commons, thus adding to the pressure for No Deal. Despite government protestations it’s ironic that No Deal may have the simultaneous effect of easing a rebellion and sustaining the Tories’ voting clout in Parliament with DUP backup.
Of course, all of this adds to economic uncertainty with most vocal business leaders biting their nails. For example, Lord Wolfson, boss of retail chain Next and a Conservative peer, has given grave predictions for the retail sector on the consequences of a No Deal situation. With retail as a core indicator of consumer confidence, this will make economic analysts in government departments shudder.
But where is Labour at the moment?
Their message is somewhat muted by the drama and anxiety over the negotiations – with the focus being on the Tories’ division. They don’t seem to be landing the obvious punches you might expect. That may well be their strategy; aka, sit back and watch. What’s clear is that they’re are waiting in the wings, observing a further opportunity to up their call for a snap general election. With Labour’s shared position with the SNP on a second referendum, the pressure continues to grow on the PM. She is being assailed on all sides. Opportunity knocks for those looking to topple this fragile administration, friend and foe alike.
Unless something shifts from Brussels on Northern Ireland, together with sufficient easing of her own party’s differing views, her premiership looks more uncertain than ever. Casting an eye over the hill, the monster is a mounting rebellion.