Theresa May’s weakness is the talk of Brussels
Cold-shouldered by EU leaders, under pressure from Westminster and her cabinet – Theresa May’s task of delivering Brexit just got tougher, writes George Parker
There is a moment, captured on the cameras at the exit to the European council building in Brussels, that sums up Theresa May’s predicament as she ponders the task of delivering Brexit from her newly enfeebled position as head of a minority government.
Mrs May was granted permission to make a short Brexit presentation at the EU summit on 22 June while the after dinner coffee was being served. She was listened to in silence and then ushered from the room, while the remaining 27 EU leaders continued without her.
The prime minister, who gambled with an election to strengthen her Brexit negotiating position, was then filmed leaving the Europa building with her staff, her head bowed. The body language spoke of a woman suddenly confronted with the reality of her new position.
Mrs May’s weakness is the talk of Brussels. I stayed over after the summit to catch up with old friends and the question every diplomat or Eurocrat wanted to ask was: “Does this mean you might change your mind on Brexit?” The simple answer I gave was “No.”
Whatever Mrs May’s problems, there is so far little appetite among the British public for reversing the result of the 2016 referendum. Far from it: polling suggests that around half of those who voted Remain now believe we should just get on with it.
Anna Soubry, the arch-Remainer Tory MP and former minister, says she knocked on hundreds of doors during the course of the election and came to the conclusion that voters want Brexit to happen. She just wants to make sure it causes as little damage as possible.
So it will happen and it falls to Mrs May to deliver it. Some Tory MPs measure the prime minister’s survival chances in No 10 “in months not years”, but there is a growing view that it might be best to let her carry on until Brexit in 2019 – and carry the can if, or when, it goes wrong.
A leadership contest now would split the Tory party along familiar lines – in this case between “hard” and “soft” Brexiters – and probably lead to a general election which Jeremy Corbyn might win. It is not obvious how that calculation changes between now and 2019.
But the uncomfortable EU summit dinner this week was a symbolic reminder of who is calling the shots in this negotiation; Tory Eurosceptics and the Daily Mail will not take that lying down.
Then there is the problem of holding together a cabinet that includes pro-Europeans like Damian Green, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, who want to keep Britain as close as possible to the EU single market and customs union, and more robust Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
But I suspect the biggest problem for Mrs May may not come in Brussels or around the cabinet table but at Westminster, as she tries to drive through a gargantuan package of Brexit legislation with the flimsiest of majorities, even with DUP support.
Both the Commons and Lords have Remain majorities and are likely to use the passage of the Repeal Bill and other major pieces of legislation on customs, trade, immigration, agriculture and other issues, to put down amendments to soften the impact of Brexit.
If Mrs May accepts amendments that push Britain towards lengthy single market and customs transition deals – with limits on Britain’s ability to strike its own trade deals and ongoing payments to the EU budget – at what point do the Eurosceptics in her party decide that enough is enough?
If she tries to tough it out, there is the risk of corrosive defeats, week in week out. Either way, the task is immense and since 8 June it has become an awful lot harder. Mrs May’s face as she left the Europa building into the Brussels night suggests she understands that all too well.
George Parker is political editor at the Financial Times