After concerns about the Foreign Secretary’s job security bumped Vince Cable’s keynote leader’s speech at Lib Dem conference off the news agenda yesterday, a sense of stability has been restored to Cabinet. Boris Johnson has told hacks in New York that he is not going anywhere – likening Cabinet harmony to ‘a nest of singing birds’. The message from Downing Street, too, is one of quiet confidence that Johnson won’t be departing the frontbench – at least, not this weekend.
This suggests two things. Firstly, that May’s Florence speech won’t be as drastic as had first been thought. Secondly, Johnson is coming round to the idea of payments to Brussels continuing during a transition period. However, the big issue remains: at some point May will have to lay out her position in full and when she does there will be anger and upset on one side of the party. As James has explained on Coffee House, the trouble brewing in both the Cabinet and party at large is over whether Britain opts for a Canada-inspired Brexit, which risks friction but allows more control to be taken back, or a more stable – if limiting – Swiss-style arrangement.
In today’s i paper, I write that May finds herself in a no-win situation. Any position she takes will end up isolating a wing of her party – with resignations likely to follow. It’s only a matter of time until she will have to provide specifics on the nature of Britain’s relationship to the EU after Brexit. The problem she faces is that No 10 is yet to find a way to sell this to the party as a whole. Up until now, the Whip’s Office has managed to get MPs to behave and support the Government by telling them that if they speak out and rebel they could be responsible for bringing down the Government and handing the keys to Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn.
On Europe, this tactic is less effective. There are some Conservative MPs who are so intent on a ‘proper’ Brexit that they can live with it helping Corbyn become Prime Minister. As one member of the Government puts it, ‘Brexit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even if Corbyn gets into power, he will be out in a few years.’ The thinking goes that Corbynomics would be such a failure, the Tories would quickly get back in.
The majority of MPs, however, are united on the need to stop Corbyn entering No 10. The issue is they have contradicting views on how to do this. Cabinet ministers – such as Philip Hammond – think it’s the Conservatives’ economic competence that will win them the next election, so favour a EEA minus deal but Brexiteers think voters want to break with the status quo so only a CETA plus arrangement will do. There’s no easy way to square this difference of views.