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20 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:52am

Tory MPs are creating the space for Theresa May to disappoint Brexiteers

Interventions from former ministers seeking a sensible Brexit show we are finally approaching the point where May might risk disappointing the hardliners.

By Patrick Maguire

The tide could be turning for Conservative Leavers. Just over a week after they celebrated victory when Theresa May’s preferred customs model was declared dead, they have ceded advantage in the Tory struggle over Brexit. 

Emboldened by the Prime Minister’s plan to extend the proposed regulatory alignment of the backstop plan to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland to the whole UK –meaning parts of the customs union will still apply in the UK after 2020 – previously peripheral players in the fight are seeking to create the space for May to soften Brexit. 

In today’s Observer the former minister Nick Boles, who earlier this week called for a “Brexit that works”, suggested there was widespread support among Tory MPs for Britain staying in the customs union beyond the end of the transition and into 2022.

It comes after Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt reported on Friday that Damian Green, Amber Rudd and Justine Greening – now outside of government, like Boles – are planning to back publicly a softer vision of Brexit in a bid to encourage the prime minister to pursue a softer Brexit. 

One figure in the group told Watt:

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“The prime minister is going to have to make a decision. If she comes down on the side of the ERG to keep 60 of them happy that will be unacceptable to us and our numbers are larger.

“In the coming weeks we will be showing what the mainstream is thinking – Leavers and Remainers. This is about identifying a locus, where the mainstream lies to allow the prime minister to land this in the right place.”

Within the Tory party, that mainstream certainly isn’t the ERG vision. Within the Commons, it’s membership of the customs union, for which there is a clear majority. 

Interventions such as those by Boles and the former members of May’s cabinet are significant in that they come from MPs who have hitherto been between the Europhile and Eurosceptic extremes of the debate. Their calculation is that they, and MPs like them, amount to a sensible majority that will make the compromise May is moving towards numerically and politically doable. They are probably right.

May took one important step towards disappointing the Leavers in her party and cabinet with the new and potentially indefinite backstop earlier this week. But with the EU27 seemingly unwilling to let such a plan fly – on the grounds that Britain would be taking exactly the a la carte approach to the EU’s four freedoms it has explicitly rejected – there is a chance that she will need to go further if she is to resolve things conclusively. 

There is the will to do it on the government benches, as Conservative MP Margot James’ forthright turn on Pienaar’s Politics proved today (she said it would be “utterly senseless” to sanction a customs system that made life more difficult for businesses, which could be interpreted as a swipe at either of the options being considered by the inner cabinet). Tory machinations this weekend make clear that she will have the political space – and support – to do so. We are finally approaching the point where May might risk disappointing the hardliners.

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