Today’s Cabinet conference call was more illuminating in terms of direction of travel than the details of what Theresa May is actually going to do. It is now clear that May’s approach is to try and put the Tory DUP alliance back together by getting something on the backstop rather than trying to find some cross party consensus.
One of the reasons for this is that the Labour leadership’s reluctance to play ball makes it very hard to get the numbers for any compromise deal. I am told that David Lidington, who had been leading the cross party talks, reluctantly acknowledged this point. As one Cabinet Minister put it to me, ‘This kills the system’s desire for a customs-union style solution.’ Interestingly, the other Cabinet Minister involved in the cross-party talks—Michael Gove—talked about how the deadlock might lead to a general election.
Getting the bulk of the ERG back on board will, I suspect, be considerably easier than winning over the DUP. A small but growing number in the ERG can see that there is a growing risk that Brexit won’t happen at all, and so might be prepared to accept a compromise on the backstop. The DUP, though, won’t settle for anything that isn’t legally binding.
The pushback on this call from those ministers who favour a softer Brexit was, I’m informed, relatively limited. David Gauke warned against the dangers of over-promising. Greg Clark argued that May had always been straight with people about what was deliverable, and there was a danger this wasn’t. But, perhaps, the most intriguing contribution came from Philip Hamond who said that the EU wouldn’t change the fundamentals of their position and so the UK might have to offer the EU something else to get out.