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19 September 2017

These are the two options for Brexit – which will Theresa May choose?

It doesn't really matter if the Tories are unified around a position that doesn't work. 

By Stephen Bush

Has Theresa May taken control of the Brexit talks or lost it? On the plus side you have the poaching of Olly Robbins, from his post as chief mandarin at the Brexit department to Downing Street. He will retain his role as the UK’s top civil servant in the Brexit negotiations, increasing May’s involvement in the talks. Jim Pickard and Henry Mance have a good account of the consequences across Whitehall in the FT.

On the minus side, you have, well, everything else really. “Boris is Boris,” was the PM’s lukewarm response to his big intervention in the Brexit talks, an acknowledgement that she is too weak to move him. In the Times, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates report on May’s plan to try to bind Johnson into her Brexit approach a meeting of the cabinet on Thursday, before her big speech in Florence at the end of the week.

May’s predecessor-but-three, William Hague, has used his Telegraph column to warn her that she must unite the Conservatives on Europe or lose the next election to Labour. (He would know, to be fair.) “May must unite Tories on Brexit or lose election, warns Hague” is their splash.

The big divide, James Forsyth explains in the Spectator, is between those favouring a Canada-style loose arrangement with high levels of freedom but a low standard of participation in the single market, and those backing a Norway-esque close arrangement with a low level of freedom and a high level of participation in the single market. Which will May pick?

As one senior Conservative observed yesterday, political reality means that May will likely tilt towards the cabinet’s Canada tendency, as Tory Remainers are reluctant to be “suicide bombers” against their own government. The PM has a lot less to lose by moving away from Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Damian Green than she does from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel.

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There’s a small problem here, though: which is that the United Kingdom can’t negotiate a Canada-style deal in the time set out by Article 50, and will struggle to put one together even with a period of transition. There isn’t really an off-the-shelf model here, as far and away the biggest part of the British economy is services and most big trade deals have done comparatively little for services.

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That only compounds May’s difficulties. The first problem is that unifying her party around a common position on Europe is easier said than done (just ask, say, anyone who has led the Conservatives since 1970). The second is, as her clash with Boris Johnson shows, she can’t unify anything as she doesn’t have the power any more. The third and the most important is that it doesn’t really matter if the Conservative Party is unified around a Brexit position that doesn’t work.