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The Prime Minister was right to follow ConservativeHome’s advice and decide (albeit rather late-on) to go on the Andrew Marr Show this morning. As we argued on Friday, voters deserve an explanation from her as to how and why she has changed (“evolved”, in Downing Street speak) her position since the Mansion House speech.
From her perspective, it also makes sense to at least try to present a justification of that decision. The Government rejects Boris Johnson’s description of the policy as a “turd”, and therefore believes that more presentational polishing is indeed the solution to their problem.
Plus, at minimum it is more honest to acknowledge a change in position and seek to explain it than to pretend that “nothing has changed” in defiance of the evidence. We all know that the latter approach leads to certain disaster. Plus, her decision to talk to Marr had the immediate effect of bumping David Davis from the show, so the Prime Minister began with points on the board, having reduced the airtime of her critics.
The interview made for interesting viewing. Beneath all the assurances about staying true to her word was, at last, the answer as to why she had chosen to retreat: “Michel Barnier made clear…the un-negotiability of the position that we had”. In other words, the EU said it wouldn’t consider the position the Government was going to propose (crucially, before it had actually proposed it), so she moved to a position that she hopes they can consider:
“We had a choice. We could’ve said, well let’s stick where we are and see what happens, and risk actually ending up with a chaotic leaving…or we could’ve said, ok let’s look at moving forward, let’s look at an alternative proposal.”
The Chequers principles, and the new White Paper based on them, are that “alternative proposal”. The Prime Minister has come clean with the nation about why she felt it necessary to switch to it.
Her description of the White Paper position as fully honouring all her pledges, such as her effort to draw a distinction between “the jurisdiction of the ECJ” and UK courts having to abide by the case law and arbitration decisions of the ECJ, seems to be an overstatement, to say the least, but at least we now have her own account of her decision to study and engage with.
There are two difficulties which now arise for her from the topics which came up in the interview, however
First, what will she do when the EU asks her to move further? It surely will ask her to do so. We know that the EU always asks for more; the concept of ratcheting ever-growing powers are in its DNA, and its negotiators have already said they intend to do so. Some elements of what May said this morning in an effort to assuage British concerns – such as floating the idea of carve-outs to facilitate external trade deals – will likely alarm the purists in Brussels, too. And, of course, her decision to move her position in response to the pressure Barnier has exerted so far sends a clear signal to them that her supposedly firm and fixed policies are no such thing.
Crucial to this question is the foundational switch which she has also performed: from “no deal is better than a bad deal” to “back me or there’ll be no Brexit” (the headline given to her article in today’s Mail on Sunday). The logic of the former, which still has majority support among voters, was that she would stick to her guns. The logic of the latter is that she will keep folding if they keep pushing. It’s an argument that she believes she needs to deploy to try to bring the Brexiteers on her backbenches into line, but in deploying it she weakens her negotiating hand in a way that deters them from supporting her.
When Marr asked her if the political price she has paid to perform this manoevre was a chance to say to Brussels “no more concessions, no more changes, no dodging, no weaving”, rather than say “yes” the Prime Minister replied that “we’re going to sit down in negotiation”. Conservative MPs will have been listening, and so will Barnier.
The second question is even more deadly: can Brexiteers trust her reassurances any longer? May evidently knows that she has work to do to reassure them – it would be deeply alarming if she did not display such a realisation. She tried to do so:
“In my view there are certain things that are non-negotiable. It is non-negotiable that free movement will end, we will end free movement. It is non-negotiable that we’re coming out of the Customs Union, so we can have our independent trade policy, we will do that, we will come out of the Customs Union. It is non-negotiable that the ECJ will no longer have jurisdiction in the United Kingdom.”
Those are firm words, but for Leavers who accepted her assurance that her previous position was fixed it will be hard for Downing Street to persuade them that they are true red lines rather than simply words.
David Davis himself cited in his resignation letter his frustration at “the progressive dilution of what I thought was a firm Chequers agreement in February”. That loss of trust led him to quit, and it is spreading to others for understandable reasons. She supposedly wasn’t going to move before, but then she did. Now she assures the nation that she won’t shift again, but this time more than a few are thinking: “Fool me once…”
Conservative MPs’ trust in the Prime Minister is particularly threatened by the row over exactly how long she had been preparing this new policy, and in particular the ‘common rulebook’, even behind the backs of her own ministers.
Steve Baker makes a persuasive case in the Sunday Telegraph that “it must be the case that for months large sections of the Government were working on the Chequers plan” and therefore “Dexeu is effectively a Potemkin structure to represent what the Cabinet Office Europe unit was doing for the Prime Minister”. Robin Walker, who has been a DEXEU minister since the department was created, was only willing to say on the Sunday Politics that he knew of the proposal “after the Chequers meeting”.
Junior ministers are often told less than Cabinet ministers, of course, but in the Sunday Times Tim Shipman reports that:
‘Friends say the prime minister effectively lied to David Davis’s face on the Wednesday before the Chequers showdown when she denied the existence of a “third way” document on customs, which her aides had briefed the media about. When it appeared the next day, Davis realised his own civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union had been working behind his back to draw up a shadow policy.’
That’s the account told by friends of Davis, but Downing Street might see it differently. So it was reasonable for Marr to ask May directly:
“When did former Brexit Secretary David Davis know about the common rulebook? When did he know?”
The answer was less than precise:
“We have been…I have been talking with David Davis about the approach that we should be taking for some time.”
So Marr tried again:
AM: “I asked a very specific question. When did he know about the common rulebook?”
TM: “He knew…we have been talking about this for some time. But Andrew, you haven’t allowed me…”
and she then changed the subject to the reasons for her change of policy.
The Prime Minister’s visible inability to reply to these concerns with a simple answer, something like “Oh, he knew from the outset, we were totally open with him about it”, rather speaks for itself. For some period of time – long enough to consider, decide and then design this new policy – things apparently were as Baker suggests: the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office developed a shadow policy out of sight of the DEXEU ministers, presumably because they knew they would find it unacceptable.
It isn’t hard to see the impact that has on the relationships she needs if her strategy is to have a future. Baker says he is “pretty sore” about his experience at Downing Street’s hands, and many other Leavers will feel the same on his behalf. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the next step in her plan rests on her ability to retain the trust of her MPs, her Party and Conservative voters – just at the very moment when she has caused them to question whether they were wrong to trust her in the first place.