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31 May 2018

If Rudd, Green and Greening really want to soften Brexit, they’ll need a better plan

The ex-cabinet ministers' attempt to convince Theresa May that there is a Tory majority for a sensible Brexit is too vague to unite the party and too toxic for Leavers. 

By Patrick Maguire

How should Theresa May solve her party’s Brexit bind? Sensibly, if you ask the three ministers most recently departed from her cabinet.

Today’s Times reports that Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Damian Green met the prime minister yesterday, in the hope of ushering her towards a “sensible” vision of Brexit which they believe has the support of a mainstream majority of Conservative MPs.

It’s been known for some time that the trio – all Remainers defenstrated from government in recent months – have been planning such an intervention. But just what is a sensible Brexit, and will their lobbying make a difference?

On the question of exactly how they define a sensible Brexit, the only thing that’s clear is how they don’t. The exercise has been pitched as an attempt to both unyoke May from the demands of the hardline European Research Group and shield her from the pro-EU mutineers. They rightly argue that neither group’s visions reflect the thinking of most Conservative MPs.

But Rudd also explicitly rules out membership of the customs union – arguably the mainstream position across the Commons as a whole. Instead, the call is for a “pragmatic” approach to negotiations, close alignment with the single market on goods, and time-limited membership of the customs union, pending whatever Irish-border-friendly solution the Prime Minister comes up with.

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Saying so makes for an attractive statement of broad intent. Beyond that, the paucity of detail has made for a sceptical reaction among the MPs for whom Green, Rudd and Greening claim to be acting as tribunes.

Beyond highlighting the existence of the so-called mainstream majority and a vague set of basic principles, what is the plan to take back control of the Brexit debate? Without one, some Tory MPs doubt that the terms of the debate will alter substantially.

If anything, the intervention of three Remainers has given succour to hard Leavers, alert to any move to dilute Brexit, and toughened the resolve of some of the softer Brexiteers they are seeking to court. Unenviably, they are seen as wreckers and appeasers at once.

Others speculate that the primary purpose of the intervention is less about Brexit than it is about drawing the poison from a debate which is corroding the party in a very public way. Doing so, the thinking goes, will allow the party to unite behind May and preserve its electoral strength. But in the absence of a substantive plan to fill the vaccuum between the ERG and mutineers, the cabinet refugees will do nothing to stop, and may even exacerbate, a debate dominated by their extremes.

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