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Boris has given Theresa May a choice: rout her enemies, or be routed

9 July 2018

6:48 PM

9 July 2018

6:48 PM

The good news, one Tory conceded to me today, is that there is a measure of clarity now. Open warfare has replaced the clandestine skirmishing that has hitherto occupied the attention of the cabinet and the Conservative parliamentary party. You are either with the prime minister, for all her faults and shortcomings, or you are against her. This is a choosing time and there is no hiding place. 

As good news goes, this doesn’t go very far. 

Nevertheless, this is where we are. Ever since her Lancaster House speech – the foundational document of her tenure in office – the prime minister has stressed that she sought a Brexit deal that offered as much access to the single market as possible. The agreement she wanted would “take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas”. Doing so would not only be good for business, it would also go some way towards resolving the otherwise unresolvable problem of the Irish border. 

So it should not be considered a monumental surprise that the proposals hammered out – or, perhaps, dictated – at the Chequers summit were, in considerable part, dedicated towards preserving single market terms of trade to the maximum extent possible and on maintaining something close to “frictionless” trade in goods. 

You may think this hopelessly optimistic and something that the EU 27 could never accept – it being too close to the kind of cherry-picking they have long deprecated – but you cannot honestly say it is a breach of prime ministerial promises. It is not so very far removed from what she has said all along. 

Betrayal, of course, has always been an option. The more hideously complex Brexit becomes, the more attractive a “clean” break becomes. We might snap our legs but we would, in a manner of speaking, be free. At the very least, this would offer some clarity. In those circumstances, almost any compromise with reality becomes a kind of betrayal. 

The narrative spun by Brexiteers to win the referendum has returned to haunt them. Liam Fox said a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU would be one of the “easiest” deals in the history of trade deals. And let us not forget how, in May 2016, David Davis suggested that “The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin to strike a deal. Post-Brexit a UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a deal on everything else. Similar deals would be reached with other key EU nations. France would want to protect £3bn of food and wine exports. Italy its £1bn fashion exports. Poland its £3bn manufacturing exports”.

Well then. 

The ignorance on display has been as striking as the casual insouciance with which Brexiteer ministers have gone about their business. Given a choice between fantasy and reality, hardcore Brexiteers have plumped for the comforts of their own imaginary world. 

“We are headed for the status of a colony” Boris Johnson says in his resignation letter. This is not the great moment of national emancipation the Brexiteers imagined. But then that was always the category error of all category errors, not least since it relied upon the presumption that the UK was held in a state of bondage while it remained a member of the EU. There are, it seems, no free countries anywhere. This will surprise some people elsewhere in europe, but there you have it. 

But, tiresome as it may be to insist we remember this, as recently as Friday Boris Johnson was prepared to sign up to the Chequers agreement. Nothing about it has changed since then, merely Johnson’s calculation of his own personal interest. His departure, then, was entirely in keeping with the story of his entire political career. He may imagine he will be missed; he is likely to be disappointed. 

This, then, is now a political fight to the death. The pretence the Conservative party can unite around any Brexit proposals is over. What remains is a struggle to determine whether the prime minister or the Moggites hold the real power inside the party and, hence, inside the government. 

More resignations must be thought possible and perhaps even likely. So be it. The battle lines are clear. On the one hand, there is a prime minister trying – albeit with less than obvious success – to make the best of a dreadful situation; on the other Tory rebels who will happily destroy this, or any, government in pursuit of a Brexit dream every single credible economic forecast has suggested will damage the country’s economic wellbeing. 

The past three Conservative prime ministers have, one way or another, been destroyed or undermined by the european question. Theresa May will probably be the fourth. That suggests, once again, the problem may lie in the party, not in the identity of those cursed to lead it. Pragmatism, even of the dull-witted, plodding, kind used to be reckoned a Tory virtue; no longer. 

“The Brexit dream is dying, suffocated by needless doubt” Johnson writes, invoking – as has been customary – the confidence fairies in whose power we can trust if only we are prepared to wish, wish, wish hard enough. Dreams, of course, are just that. 

A vote of no confidence in the prime minister seems as likely as not. Perhaps the Brexiteer ultras should be careful, however. There is no parliamentary majority for their preferred brands of Brexit and not even Jeremy Corbyn is likely to save them. And by breaking cover they also reveal the weakness of their position. They might wound the prime minister but if she cannot get her votes from Conservative MPs she will have to gain them elsewhere. That presents opportunities to others and does so in ways many Tories will find unpalatable. Members of other parties have an opportunity – if they will grasp it – to put country before party. 

So be it. This crisis has its origins in Brexitland, not Remainia. There are, as has always been clear, many kinds of Brexit. By insisting on purity, the Brexiteers risk getting what they most abhor: a mongrel Brexit. 

If that’s how it goes then that’s how it goes. The EU 27 are just the other party to these talks; the prime minister’s enemies are inside her own party. She either routs them or is routed herself. There is no other way. 


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