What happened yesterday is quite remarkable. The Prime Minister summed her inner Cabinet to discuss the biggest question facing the country, the defining issue of her premiership. She told them what she thought the right solution was. Then, a majority of the committee rejected her preferred outcome.
What makes this rebuff of Theresa May all the more extraordinary is that two of the members of the committee who went against her are people who she has recently promoted. On Monday, Theresa May elevated Sajid Javid to a great office of state. On Wednesday, he took the opposite position to her in this crunch meeting of the Brexit inner Cabinet. But even more surprising than Javid’s disagreement with her, he is—after all—a committed free trader, is Gavin Williamson’s defiance of her. He was her chief whip, the mastermind of her leadership bid. He worked with her every day of her premiership until November when she rewarded him with a massive promotion to Defence Secretary. Yet, now he is taking the other side to her on the biggest issue facing the country and the government.
If all this was not sign enough of May’s diminished authority, consider that allies of her personally pleaded with various Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers to back her on the new customs partnership. They argued that it was necessary to get Brexit through parliament and that it had now turned into a question of the Prime Minister’s authority, and that if she couldn’t get her way on it she would be left weakened at home and abroad. Yet, still they defied her.
Now, on the substance of the matter, I think that those Cabinet Ministers who went against her yesterday are right. The new customs partnership idea is absurdly complex and make Britain a much less desirable country to do a trade deal with. It would also only really work if Britain essentially stayed in the single market for goods, and with no say over the rules. This is hardly taking back control.
But none of this makes it any easier to see where the Prime Minister goes from here. As I say in the magazine in this week, all sides are seeking to pin Theresa May down on Brexit—and it isn’t clear where she can move to safely. May has used ambiguity, and with some skill, to keep the Brexit process on the road at Westminster and in Brussels. But ambiguity delays problems rather than solving them—and May is running out of road.