The Prime Minister did what she needed to do at the Conservative Party Conference this past week; she survived. Her rhetoric was strong, the message was clear, and the uneasy divisions within the party seemed to have been silenced, albeit temporarily. But, less than twenty four hours after her somewhat unifying keynote speech, Theresa May’s victory parade was rained on by a familiar foe.
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council suggested on Thursday, that the European Union is ready to offer Britain a form of "Canada-plus" Brexit trade deal; further condemning the Prime Minister’s current Chequers plan.
Mr Tusk’s comments were warmly received by Tory Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson, who described the proposal as a "superb way forward”. Tusk also demanded that Theresa May’s government “get down to business” and solve the Irish border issue, in a move that has brought the Prime Minister crashing back to reality.
However, despite a strong movement both from within her own party and from the EU to “Chuck Chequers”, there seemed to be little appetite at the party conference to replace Mrs May as leader. Therefore, surely, it is now time to shift her negotiating position towards a Canada-style deal, in order to unify both her party, and the UK as a whole.
The government's response to this will be predictable. A Canada-style deal does not solve the problem of how to avoid creating a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was quick to to preempt what has become standard government criticism over a Canada-style deal. The Head of the European Research Group tweeted that "This is a good solution for everyone and the ERG's proposals for the Irish border mean it could work for the UK as a whole."
The blueprint ERG plan, which proposes the continuation of some existing UK-EU arrangements, with additional use of technology to make it easier to comply with customs procedures, has been criticised for containing “nothing new” by pro-remain MPs. However, with the European Union openly admitting favour of a Canada-style deal, this creates an environment for the development of a pragmatic solution to the Irish border problem, based on the ERG’s proposals.
The fundamental issue facing Theresa May now is that her key antagonists, in the European Union as well as Brexiteer Tory MPs, now agree on what a post-Brexit relationship could look like; the problem being that it is not the same as her vision.
However, this does not mean that it is the end of the road for the Prime Minister. Even during the pinnacle of his speech at the Party conference, Boris stopped short of giving May her marching orders, instead pleading with her to abandon Chequers which he, and many others regard as “not democracy” during his speech. The feeling around many of the Tory Brexit rebels is that if Mrs May were to ditch Chequers in favour of a “Canada+++ deal” then they would be more than inclined to continue to back her as leader for the foreseeable future. The issue therefore is with Chequers, not May.
With the European Union willing to negotiate on the kind of deal preferred by Brexiteers, and the time to strike a deal running perilously low, the Prime Minister would be foolish not to backtrack on Chequers and accept their proposition. This would not only provide her with a more comprehensive free-trade agreement than is outlined in Chequers, but would also go someway to securing the votes needed to get the deal through Parliament.
If Mrs May refuses to alter her current path, the possibility of a no-deal outcome is looking increasingly likely, but a shift to Canada would almost certainly improve support from within her own party, and enhance the likelihood of a deal. If this turns out to be the case, it seems likely that many Tory Brexiteers would continue to support the Prime Minister as the person to lead post-Brexit Britain.
Theresa May doesn’t need to go, but the policy does.