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15 November 2017

Is Theresa May planning to go soft on Brexit?

Some Tory MPs believe that Theresa May is pulling the wool over Brexiteer eyes. 

By Stephen Bush

What is the row over putting the date of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union into law about?

There’s the literal interpretation: that Theresa May has decided that she wants to put the date into law for the reasons publicly announced – to send a message to soft Brexiteers and full-fat Remainers in the Commons that she’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.

But forcing the vote on the issue is a headache for Julian Smith, her Chief Whip, and for any loyal Conservative MP with a large Remain vote and Labour or the Liberal Democrats in a clear second-place. It saps goodwill and further adds to the bad atmosphere in the Tory party. It also doesn’t give the government anything even if they can enshrine it into law, which looks likely.

As it stands, unless parliament moves decisively and quickly to reshape the Brexit process, the United Kingdom will leave at 23:00 GMT regardless of how it votes because that’s how the Article 50 process works. As I wrote yesterday, the constitutional position means that unless Conservative Remainers are willing to do serious damage to the government, the crucial moments – the Article 50 vote and the Queen’s Speech in July – to actually shape the direction of Brexit have largely passed. 

None of the amendments put forward thus far have both (a) a realistic chance of passing the House, and (b) actually take anything close to the required steps to change the government’s Brexit asks. There is no upside to the row for the PM, unless she gets a particular thrill from being defeated and embarrassed in public. 

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It is of course possible that May is simply so dense that light cannot escape her. But some pro-Remain Conservatives have another theory: that the Prime Minister is laying the groundwork for a gentler Brexit than their colleagues expect.

To move the Brexit talks forward, the United Kingdom is going to need to up its offer on money and will have to concede something on the Irish border as well. In addition, the period of transition is too short – the British government took seven years to join a much-less complicated organisation in the first place – and there will have to be movement on the role of the European Court during the transition. So setting the time we leave into law, and setting it at midnight in Brussels no less, then becomes a handy way of convincing Tory Brexiteers that you’re serious. 

Farfetched? Perhaps, but easier to explain than a row with literally no other benefits to Theresa May.