It’s crunch week for Theresa May. The Prime Minister is under pressure to finally decide what the government’s negotiating position ought to be going into the second round of EU negotiations. In order to work out what the UK’s trade relationship with the EU should be after Brexit, May will meet with her Brexit war Cabinet on Wednesday and Thursday to try and agree a position on post-Brexit trade. There’s hope that this will bring an end to the drift which has led Brussels figures like Angela Merkel to joke about May’s ‘make me an offer‘ approach to the talks.
The crux of the issue relates to whether the UK will be in a customs arrangement of some kind with the EU. No 10 – and Theresa May personally – has ruled out staying in the customs union but there are some who think that ‘a customs union’ could still be arranged – and others who think the seemingly more diluted options of ‘a customs arrangement’ could work as a compromise. The leak of last week’s government analysis was seen by government Brexiteers as an attempt to bounce the UK into such a position.
Any customs arrangement limits the UK’s ability to strike trade deals and that means it is potentially a no-goer with the Brexiteers who value free trade. This weekend May was offered a glimpse of what might happen if she were to opt for this kind of soft Brexit. The Sunday Times reported that should that happen, the Brexiteers will move quickly to oust her install a ‘dream team’ into No 10 comprised of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Likewise those around the Cabinet table who favour closer ties with the EU post-Brexit are also holding firm. Speaking on Marr, Amber Rudd said she was ‘not intimidated’ by Brexiteers’ warnings over the customs union. She added that the UK government would not ‘surrender too quickly’ in its battle for a ‘bespoke’ trade deal with the EU.
In a small ray of sunshine for the Prime Minister, the Times reports today that a compromise could be in the offing to please everyone. This would consist of asking the Brexiteers to sign up to a time-limited extension to elements of the existing customs union. This could be more attractive to Gove than Johnson and a No 10 source helpfully says the PM is ready to do ‘what any good leader does: divide and rule’ and try to exacerbate differences between the two.
Whatever agreement May comes to with her Cabinet by the end of the week, it will divide opinion. It’s near impossible to find a negotiating position (let alone final deal) that pleases everyone in her party – and the country. The bigger question is: will she still be able to rule after the decision is made? That’s the question MPs will be asking themselves when the Prime Minister finally shows her hand.