This week, Theresa May must stop kicking the can down the road on Brexit. She must pick a side. European leaders want a detailed plan now. June has passed without agreement. October probably will too. March 2019 looms forebodingly on the horizon.
When the full cabinet meets at Chequers to sign off the government’s white paper, Leavers must put up or shut up if, as expected, the vision it sets out is much softer than they can accept.
Or will they? Some Tory MPs think not. They gloomily predict that all the cabinet will agree on is another fudge: little meat on the bones, no certainty, and no definitive choice made.
As startling as that suggestion is, the likelihood is that they are right. Consider the confidence of communities secretary James Brokenshire, who told Andrew Marr this morning that he believed a deal would be agreed, notwithstanding the “strong views on either side” of the cabinet.
Brokenshire is of course a true May loyalist and he would say that, wouldn’t he? But MPs in and around the lower rungs of government predict the same thing: some sort of agreement despite the irreconcilable differences between ministers.
It has been suggested this week that May will pull this off by getting ministers to agree on a document that will allow them to disagree.
Rather than one definitive plan on questions such as how closely the UK will follow EU regulations after Brexit, it is predicted that it will include a range of options on a sliding scale from maximum market access to maximum sovereignty. They would essentially give Olly Robbins, the prime minister’s chief negotiator in Brussels, licence to choose which one.
That, of course, wouldn’t preclude a bigger cabinet crunch further down the line. Given that a choice will eventually have to be made, it makes it inevitable. The eventual decision being made outside of cabinet means the explosion of acrimony would doubtless be greater. But if the fudge is pulled off, it does ensure that Chequers won’t be it.
But why, with time running out, would May risk deferring the final confrontation again? The best answer to that comes not from one of her ministers or MPs but from Gisela Stuart, the now retired Labour chair of Vote Leave.
“It’s a curious process,” she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge this morning. “Negotations will go up to the wire. The EU has achieved its strategic goals, but ours appear to be to keep the Tory party together.”
Stuart is right. The defining feature of May’s premiership is day-to-day survival. The purpose of that strategy, her few genuine personal loyalists inside government and Whitehall say, is to fulfil what she sees as her duty to see Brexit through. The likelihood of her managing to do that will be dented if Chequers ends up sparking Tory civil war.
For that reason, the pessimists are more likely to be right than not.