Theresa May has a new plan to sell her just-about Brexit, and she’s confident horrified Tories will swallow it

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Theresa May was brutally teased for saying that “Brexit means Brexit” but it was always pretty clear what she had in mind. Leaving the European Union, she said, meant no longer being beholden to its courts or its edicts. We’d be taking back control of our laws and regulations while striking new alliances around the world. The Prime Minister spelt it all out six months after moving into No 10: no to the Customs Union, no to the Single Market and no to the European Court of Justice. A bold, clean Brexit.
How far away that seems now. In the next few days, she will start to talk about her new plan, with a new definition of what Brexit actually means. It seems to involve keeping rather a lot of those Brussels regulations and, unlike EU membership itself, it would be incredibly hard for Britain to get out of.
Much of her party is aghast, with dozens of Tory MPs signing a “Stand up for Brexit” pledge and threatening to vote against anything that falls short of her original idea. Yet she is confident of getting her deal through parliament next month, and past her Cabinet in the next few days. All it takes, she thinks, is the right argument.
The Cabinet will be the first to hear it. She’s planning a special meeting to announce a plan which, she says, will deliver the Brexit that the public voted for. She will define this as control of borders, farms, fisheries – and money. The £10 billion-a-year payments will be whittled down to less than a billion, saving £50 billion over a parliament, so even more to spend on the NHS. The EU is ready to agree to all this, she will say, at a summit next month. All she needs is the approval of her own ministers.
She might also add that, if David Cameron had come back from Brussels with this settlement, Brexiteers would have hailed him as a hero – given that it goes far beyond what Eurosceptics had thought possible just a few years ago. No 10 is even putting a figure on it: the deal would deliver 95 per cent of what Brexiteers want. A deal, it’s argued, that only purists would reject.
But then come the problems. To keep free trade flowing, Mrs May envisages signing up to the EU rule book – not just on product standards but employment, regulation and more. She also plans to promise that no British government would do anything to prompt the EU to build a hard border in Northern Ireland – a pledge likely to be interpreted in such a way as to preclude any serious trade deal. No 10 rejects this, saying new deals will still be possible. But it’s a hard case to make when both Australia and the United States are saying that Mrs May’s plan rules them out.
She can then argue that all this is intended to be temporary, a “backstop”, pending a proper Brexit deal. But what if one doesn’t arrive? (And after we’ve signed away the money, why would it?)
Under current plans, the UK could only get out of Mrs May’s deal with the permission of an as-yet-to-be-determined arbitration panel. She says this escape clause will work; her ministers think it won’t. Hence the loud calls for private legal advice to be published: they wish to make sure that Mrs May is not about to entrap her successor.
This takes us back to the Hotel California scenario, where Britain has checked out of the EU only to find that it can never really leave.
Brussels is pressing for plenty of other concessions, saying it wants a “level playing field” – which is code for being allowed to regulate Britain even after Brexit. This might be the single market in all but name, just as the backstop would be the customs union in all but name.
One Cabinet member, whom Mrs May regards as a dependable ally, says he will resign if she concedes any more on this point. This might trigger a leadership bid. Several backbenchers have publicly pledged to vote all this down come what may.
So how to navigate through this barrier reef of Conservative mutineers? Until recently, her plan was to warn that a no-deal Brexit would unleash all kinds of mayhem, with pets imprisoned for months in quarantine and Eurostar carriages mothballed in Gare du Nord. But these arguments strike many Tories as another implausible “Project Fear”. If Brexiteers were daunted by predictions of havoc, they would not be Brexiteers.
So Mrs May instead intends to win them over with a political argument. That no-deal would unleash the anti-Brexit rebels who would then start to hijack legislation: perhaps voting to force her government to stay in the Customs Union, to hold a “people’s vote” referendum or even stay in the EU.
So this, she will say, is the real choice. Her deal, with the admitted risks and defects – or a “no deal” that might lead to no Brexit at all. Take the bird in hand: this is the message from No 10.
As she knows, her Cabinet probably won’t mutiny. Dominic Raab, her Brexit Secretary, thinks defects can be overlooked now if it’s possible to walk away from her deal later. Sceptics in her Cabinet hope to pressure her on this point, to make sure she returns from Brussels with an exit clause – but that’s the limit of their ambition. Earlier talk about deposing her has died down.
Of course, if rebels do start to order her to reverse Brexit, she’d have demonstrably lost control and a general election would have to be called. After last year’s debacle, this is not something many Tory MPs relish. And this is the unspoken threat: they’ve seen Mrs May fight an election. Do they really want her to do it again? And can they think of a way of voting down her plan that does not risk collapsing her government and splitting their party?
For those to whom Brexit meant control over migration and money, the mission will be accomplished by Mrs May’s plan. For those who wanted more, she will have a message: don’t worry, this is all just temporary. A better deal will be along in a year or so.
She is betting that her colleagues now have only one real choice: to back her, and hope that she’s right.

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