On 2 October 2016, as Theresa May addressed the Conservative conference for the first time, she announced what became known as “hard Brexit”. The UK, she signalled, would leave the EU’s single market in order to gain control of immigration. And it would leave the customs union in order to seek trade agreements with non-European countries. The “reluctant Remainer” appeared to many to have become an enthusiastic Leaver. Tory MPs and delegates hailed May as the new Queen of Brexitannia.
But even then, as I noted at the time, the Prime Minister had left room for compromise. Though she had ruled out accepting free movement or European jurisdiction, she had not ruled out continued EU budget contributions. As the union’s second largest net contributor (donating £10.8bn in 2015/16), this was too valuable a card to relinquish. Nor did May rule out a transitional period during which the UK would remain a member of the single market before reaching a new trade agreement with the EU.
Under increasingly focused questioning, May has since reaffirmed both stances. She has only ruled out paying “significant sums” to the EU (a term loose enough to allow for billions) and has confirmed that there will be an “implementation period”, essential to avoid a calamitous exit. During her three-day trip to the Middle East, May has accepted that this entails continued free movement and, potentially, continued EU jurisdiction.
But the political reaction has been notably muted. The Tory Brexiteers are renowned as the most ruthless faction in British politics, the great destroyers of David Cameron’s premiership. Yet most profess only contentment with May’s course. Tory MP Bill Cash, the EU’s most vigorous parliamentary opponent, told me of a transitional deal: “The idea of a hangover is out of the question.” But others such as Peter Bone (“extremely supportive”) and Steve Baker (“zen”), the head of the influential Conservative Research Group, have refused to criticise the Prime Minister.
What accounts for such uncharacteristic contentment? For most Brexiteers, the fundamental fact remains that Britain is leaving the EU. Many are still ecstatic at a victory they feared would never come. Having since seen off cabinet Remainers such as Philip Hammond, who favoured membership of the single market and the customs union, they have good cause to celebrate.
Unlike Cameron, who was never regarded by MPs as “one of them”, May has forged warm relations through policies such as grammar schools and a more traditional line on climate change and international aid. Crucially, the country also likes the PM. Under May, the Tories have enjoyed their best poll ratings since returning to government. While Labour MPs grow more rebellious in times of political success, their Conservative counterparts tend to respect it. Cameron’s worst period coincided with the 2012 “omnishambles” Budget, forcing him to concede a referendum the following January. Under the former PM, some Tory MPs viewed defeat to Labour as inevitable, they are now urged by ministers not to jeopardise what most regard as inevitable victory at the next election.
But some Brexiteers are merely keeping their powder dry, waiting for the moment that May’s theoretical concessions become real. As she seeks to achieve “the best deal” for the UK, the Prime Minister, like her predecessor, still risks becoming torn between party and country.