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18 October 2018

The problem for Tory MPs who don’t trust Theresa May is there isn’t time to change leaders

It’s not unreasonable that Conservative MPs, whether they be Leavers or Remainers, want a fresh face in charge.

By Stephen Bush

Next month’s Brexit summit is cancelled: leaders of the EU27 have resolved that there is not sufficient progress for it to be worth the trip. Here at home, Conservative politicians and the Brexit press are in uproar over the idea that the transition period could be extended past December 2020. 

The two rows are intimately linked: frankly a large number of people around SW1 have bought their own hype and if they have their way, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal, whether in March 2019 or December 2020. 

The average trade deal takes 28 months to negotiate. The transition period agreed is 21 months. Is there anyone who seriously believes that the conduct of these negotiations has been of average quality, let alone above average? I’d say that was the one thing that unites Conservative MPs these days: while they might disagree about whether the problem is Theresa May, the European Commission or both, none of them thinks that talks are progressing well. 

And as the biggest problem is not May’s approach to the negotiations but that thanks to her disastrous conduct of the election campaign, the United Kingdom has a Parliament that is ill-equipped to agree any Brexit deal. (Or another referendum, or to bin off Brexit entirely, etc. etc.) 

So there will have to be a transition extension at some point, just as either you have a backstop that results in a thicker regulatory border down the Irish Sea or you have indefinite regulatory and customs alignment between the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole. 

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The thing is: the reasons that Conservative MPs don’t trust Theresa May aren’t wrong. She does have an opaque and non-collegiate approach to reaching decisions. She is a Remainer who still refuses to say she thinks that Brexit is a good idea. She is prone to unforced political errors that make the Tory problem worse, not better. It’s not unreasonable that Conservative MPs, whether they be Leavers or Remainers, want a fresh face in charge and don’t trust that a transition deal won’t simply drag on forever.

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But their problem – and the problem for everyone else – is that there simply isn’t time to change leaders now. The only other options look like either the off-the-shelf deal of dropping into the EEA’s Efta pillar, or – much more likely – dropping out of the EU without a deal at all.