It’s red letter day for Theresa May. Only rather than a happy momentous occasion, the Prime Minister’s red letter day consists of receiving a letter listing all the Brexiteers’ red lines on the EU. With the inner Cabinet due to meet on Thursday for their ‘away day’ to decide a Brexit negotiating position, the influential European Research Group have sent May a letter listing their ‘Brexit demands’.
Signed by 62 backbench MPs, the letter – in which the group pledge their ‘continued, strong backing’ for May and her Brexit plan as per the Lancaster House speech – kindly offers the Prime Minister a list of suggestions on how to achieve the best Brexit. These ‘suggestions’ include full regulatory autonomy, an implementation period governed by World Trade Organisation principles and a promise that new trade deals with third countries can be negotiated as soon as Britain officially leaves the EU.
The letter’s contents has been quick to stir up anger on the Remain side. Nicky Morgan says it amounts to a ransom note while today’s Times leader suggests that May would be wise to give the ERG a slap. However, when it comes to the letter’s contents there is nothing that surprising. Although Theresa May would clearly rather not have received this letter, as far as letters from a group of hardline Brexiteers ahead of a crunch meeting go, it’s not the worst she could have received.
It’s already well established that the ERG are chasing the cleanest form of Brexit, with Jacob Rees-Mogg – the group’s leader – vocal in his criticism of a transition period in which the UK is a rule-taker with no say. No 10 – and the Chief Whip – are all too aware of this group’s demands hence why Smith has met with them frequently – and even fed them cake.
Notably, this letter is written by John Penrose – not Rees-Mogg. Penrose backed Remain in the referendum so the decision to have him pen it suggests that the ERG are adopting a more conciliatory tone. Secondly, all the things it lays out are issues where the ERG’s position is fairly well-known within Conservative circles. More interesting than the contents is what’s not in the letter. There is no mention of freedom of movement. Given that David Davis is expected to cave on May’s demand for EU citizens coming to work in the implementation period not having the same rights as those who came before, this will be a welcome relief for No 10.
This isn’t to say that there’s no trouble ahead. The ERG’s red lines may not be new but what remains to be seen is what happens if their ‘suggestions’ are not taken on board. There is clearly an eventual clash on the horizon – and a risk of a ‘no confidence’ vote – if this group of 62 MPs decide May has gone for too soft a Brexit. For now, however, it’s best to read the move in terms of Thursday’s big meeting. With a decision on the UK’s negotiating position imminent, it ought to be expected that each group would put as much pressure as possible on the Prime Minister to take their side.