Theresa May appeared on the Andrew Marr sofa with her premiership at its most vulnerable point since the disastrous snap election. After a week of frontbench resignations, a US Presidential visit that resulted in humiliation, a growing eurosceptic rebellion and a downturn in the polls, May belatedly tried to sell her Brexit blueprint to the public.
The Prime Minister began by attempting some honesty – she told Marr that she did accept that the position agreed at Chequers last Friday was different to what was set out in her Lancaster House speech. However, she insisted that the change was minimal and that competitive free trade deals were still possible – she refused to explicitly say that the common rulebook would make trade deals harder to forge. On the topic of that rulebook – which would see the UK agree to align (and become a rule-taker) on goods including agri-food – May said her former Brexit Secretary David Davis had been kept in the loop despite reports to the contrary. She argued that under her proposals the UK would be able to opt out if it didn’t like a certain rule – it’s just that the opt out would have severe consequences.
— The Andrew Marr Show (@MarrShow) July 15, 2018
The most interesting aspect though wasn’t what the common rulebook does or doesn’t mean for free trade – that has been the subject of debate all week – but how May tried to sell her compromise. Although May could have – and should have – been more honest about the Brexit trade-offs and why she thought her plan was the best option, she did succeed in putting her side of the argument forward over the difference of opinion between herself and the departing Cabinet Brexiteers. May said that she understood why lots of Brits who voted ‘with their heart’ to leave the EU would be disappointed but that as Prime Minister it was her job to be ‘hard headed and practical’. She said she wasn’t willing to keep going on with a Brexit approach – favoured by Davis – that had so far yielded little in the way of results in the way of trade as there was too much at stake and the clock was ticking. Instead, she had decided it was time to try a new tack.
Will this be enough to win angered Tory MPs, Tory activists and voters round? It seems unlikely. May’s interview feels as though it has come too late in the game to significantly stem anger among the Tory grassroots. An Opinium poll for the Observer today claims the Tories have dropped by six points since early June and its Ukip that are gaining as a result – with support shooting up by five points to 8pc. It doesn’t help that May isn’t a natural salesman and didn’t look particularly comfortable – although she spoke about keeping ‘the eye on the prize’ of Brexit, it couldn’t be described as inspiring.
But the most surprising aspect of the interview was the Prime Minister turning up with a news line. Asked what the advice President Trump had said he had given her on Brexit was, May was frank: ‘he told me I should sue the EU,’ the Prime Minister said with a light chuckle. That should go some way to getting one up on Trump as well as her departed Foreign Secretary. It was after all Boris Johnson who said May should be more like Trump in the negotiations:
‘He’d go in bloody hard…everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.’
Now those Tory MPs advocating a more Trumpian approach have some food for thought.
A game-changing interview? No – but it has confirmed that despite all the criticism, Theresa May has no intention of rowing back and changing the Chequers position – as the eurosceptics want her to. Asked about a possible no confidence vote, May made clear that she had no intention of going quietly. If the government’s Brexit position is to change so too will the prime minister.