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21 September 2018

Despite Theresa May’s sabre-rattling, nothing has changed for Tory Brexiteers

Even though they like the rhetoric, May’s humiliation in Salzburg has underlined a fundamental truth for Conservative Brexiteers: only a Canada-style deal will do.

By Patrick Maguire

Theresa May’s attack on the European Commission and her fellow heads of government this afternoon will not shift the dial in Brussels, where her Brexit proposals have been roundly rejected. But could her show of defiance relieve the pressure at Westminster, where, from Tory Brexiteers, the reaction to her Chequers plan has been much the same?

The short answer is no. Though most Leavers on her backbenches share the frustrations with the EU and its leaders that May articulated so bombastically at Downing Street earlier, ironically, their conclusion is essentially the same as Michel Barnier’s: that Chequers cannot be allowed to work. It only differs in the sense that where the EU says May must pick between Canada and Norway, Tory Eurosceptics will only allow her to pick Canada.

Those leading the campaign to “chuck” Chequers say the prime minister’s humiliation in Salzburg proves their point. Not only will it split the Conservative Party and force MPs to vote against the government, they say, but it will never be accepted by the EU. “She keeps serving the same T-bone steak to the same vegetarians and is still surprised by the result,” says one ally of David Davis.

Though there is some sympathy for the prime minister – one senior Brexiteer, no friend of May, says she was treated “disgracefully” by Donald Tusk yesterday – there is bewilderment that she is still wasting time and squandering what is at this point a political overdraft on a plan that has been rejected by everyone that matters. What’s more, the ferocity of her rhetoric, pleasing though it may be for the European Research Group, is not matched by a substantive shift in position. The relationship between May and the Brexiteers is defined by distrust, and the gap between her tone and the reality of her position, exacerbated by this speech, only heightens it.

Like the EU, the rebels are unmoved. And, if anything, Salzburg gives them vital cover to vote against a deal they do not like even if it means chaos: a no-deal scenario will only be politically survivable, some say, if it can be spun as the EU punishing the UK. They believe the tone Tusk and Emmanuel Macron adopted yesterday will allow them to do so. Far from inducing them to compromise, the past two days have merely strengthened Brexiteer resolve. Unfortunately for the prime minister, nothing has changed at Brussels or at home. And it still it appears she has nothing by way of a strategy to overcome those obstacles.

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