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16 October 2018

After William Hague’s intervention, Downing Street is making the Brexit deal hard sell

Eight Cabinet ministers met at Andrea Leadsom's office to plan their next steps.

By Stephen Bush

It’s another difficult one for Theresa May: eight Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove – who Downing Street regards as the minister who more than any other they cannot lose – Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt and Dominic Raab met at Andrea Leadsom’s office last night to plan their next steps.

Adding to the PM’s discomfort, the House of Commons was visibly and audibly not sold on her Brexit plans last night, and the discontent ran across the Remain/Leave divide. But there could be a way out after all, albeit one with a heavy cost for the Conservative Party. And, for a change, respite comes in the shape of a Telegraph column.

William Hague has used his column this week to praise May’s tenacity in getting this far, but to add that there is no shame in changing tack and adopting Nick Boles’ plan: to drop into the EEA’s Efta pillar for a transitional period. The move is significant because Hague is usually loyal and is seen by MPs as being close to Downing Street still. Hague wouldn’t have blindsided Number 10 with a big suggestion like this. His relationship with May isn’t quite analogous to that between John Major and David Cameron, but it is a good way of concentrating Brexiteer minds.

The hard sell that Downing Street is going to make is that look, May’s proposals may not be perfect but they are the only Brexit proposals with any chance of passing the House of Commons without having to win the votes of pro-Remain members of the Opposition. If diehard Brexiteers pass up this chance, they’ll end up with a Norway-style Brexit. 

As far as the parliamentary arithmetic goes, it’s a persuasive threat for Downing Street to wield. It might be enough to get May’s deal over the line: but the consequences for Tory unity could haunt her and her successors. 

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