Was Theresa May’s big Brexit speech simply a string of ‘phrases, generalisations and platitudes’? That’s the claim from Michael Heseltine over the weekend. The Conservative peer made the Observer front page with an attack that’s said to break the Tories’ short-lived Brexit unity. He says May’s pitch on Friday fell flat as it only ‘set out the cherries that Britain wants to pick’ and complains that rightwing Tory MPs held ‘a knife to her throat’.
But if anything, Heseltine’s lone criticism highlights the Tories’ newfound unity over Brexit. If you’d told Theresa May this time last week that the most prominent Tory to criticise her plans after her speech would be Heseltine – a man she previously sacked over Brexit – I doubt she would have believed you. Given that the Tory peer has suggested he’d prefer a Corbyn government to Brexit, it’s hard to see what (other than ‘Brexit is cancelled’) May could have said to win him round.
The fact that Heseltine is the most prominent Tory to criticise May is proof in itself that the speech was a success. Against the odds, the Prime Minister has managed to – be it briefly – unite the vast bulk of her party. The Remain side of her party have been out in force on the airwaves this weekend speaking positively. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg – the chair of the European Research Group of Conservative Brexiteers – has given it his seal of approval with an article in the Telegraph, where he tells colleagues ‘now is not the time to nitpick’.
There is still trouble ahead. As James reports, the word from Brussels is that the guidelines for the proposed trade deal will very much be along the lines of rule take as Norway does or accept a Canada-style free trade deal. That would mean that the position May has got her party to rally around has to change and more compromises made – or a ‘no deal’ option. But for a few hours at least, May can take some satisfaction in Heseltine being her most troublesome foe within the Conservative party.