“It was a great speech.” That is the verdict from one former minister and senior member of the European Research Group on Theresa May’s well-received conference address. Has she won them back?
May’s speech was not about Brexit in of itself, and the word Chequers was conspicuous by its absence. She instead spoke of “our proposal for a free trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods”, a line that might as well have been focus-grouped to appeal to Brexiteers.
But while the packaging and indeed saleswoman are more attractive, May has not changed her proposals or the fundamental dynamics of her party’s internal debate over Chequers. Nor was she ever going to, and nor, for that matter, could Boris Johnson have done so.
The ERG remain implacably opposed, and the government is trying vainly to pretend it stands a chance of being accepted by parliament or the EU. Which is why any Brexiteer praise for May comes with a pretty big but.
“It was a great speech, except on Chequers,” is the caveat that former minister added. “There is no doubt in my mind we would not have an independent trade and regulatory policy under it.”
Nothing the prime minister will or indeed can do will change that fact, no matter how much panache she does it with or how convincing the plea for unity (she urged her party to “come together…even if we do not all agree on every part of this proposal” in order to avoid a Corbyn government and softer Brexit).
“One wonders what she thinks might turn up?” asks another ERG source. With the parliamentary endgame approaching, it’s a good question. From the gushing passage in which May paid tribute to Labour’s old right and mainstream traditions, it’s clear that Downing Street thinks that the answer might be a few or more opposition MPs.
But the more basic calculation that May and her loyalists in government are making is that the ERG’s bark is worse than its bite and that the chances of 80 MPs voting down May’s deal are slim, especially as Brexit day itself approaches. A sort of morbid optimism abounds. “Who is really going to say that 90 per cent of Brexit is worse than zero per cent of Brexit?” says one member of the government.
The belief is that, faced with that existential question, most Leavers who are opposed to Chequers will conclude that whatever May has brought back is better than nothing and will make peace with it, diminishing the ERG’s clout as a fighting force. Add the threat of Corbyn and avoiding the pain of the stick is worth accepting a disappointing carrot. “Steve [Baker, its deputy chairman] is on a hiding to nothing,” a cabinet source says. “He is a master organiser, but the problem is that the people he needs to organise are ultimately unorganisable.”
A source close to Baker retorts: “That’s wishful thinking, isn’t it? We have a three year track record of organising difficult to organise people and getting results. They are difficult to organise. But we’ve proven it isn’t impossible.”
With more compromises with Brussels inevitable if a deal is to be struck, there will be plenty of opportunities for the ERG to organise yet. The deal can only going to get less palatable to its followers. May’s reckoning has merely been delayed.