Theresa May will give her Brexit speech in Florence today safe in the knowledge that she finally has the full backing of her Cabinet – at least, until the warm prosecco comes out at party conference. After a difficult week, Cabinet ministers today met on Thursday a two-and-a-half hour meeting where approval was given. In an attempt to demonstrate unity, the two poles of the Cabinet’s Brexit debate – Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson – left No 10 together.
Whether this new Cabinet unity can last is another matter entirely. It’s expected that May will use the speech to propose a transitional deal with the EU of up to two years – along with a financial offer somewhere in the region of £20bn euros. Yet even this could still prove problematic. Michel Barnier’s assertion that during any transition period Britain would have to obey EU rules – implying the continuation of freedom of movement – may be a hard sell to many Brexiteers.
There are many in the Brexit camp – including Liam Halligan on Coffee House – who want May to re-assert that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The problem is that few in Whitehall believe that May still has the political capital to say anything so bold. By trying to keep both sides of her party happy, she is in a Brexit no man’s land – unable to take a definite stance. The Brexiteers can come together to stop her from conceding too much ground, while the threat of a revolt from the Remain wing of the party could prevent her from accepting only a limited trade deal. At some point, she will have to pick a direction for Britain’s exit from the EU. This may not be tomorrow, but the Brexit clock is ticking and May is running out of options.