Ever since Theresa May became prime minister, she has sought to appease her party’s Brexiteer wing. Having been a “reluctant Remainer”, May embraced “hard Brexit” by vowing to withdraw the UK from the single market and the customs union. In return, as the Prime Minister made concessions to the EU on the UK’s divorce bill, citizens’ rights and a transitional period, Conservative Brexiteers remained unusually quiescent.
But today’s PMQs provided the most significant signs yet that May’s Brexit alliance is beginning to fray. Three Tory MPs – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone and Bernard Jenkin – challenged the Prime Minister over her handling of the negotiations. Rees-Mogg ordered May to “apply a new coat of paint to her red lines” because “I fear on Monday, they were looking a bit pink”. Bone offerred to travel to Brussels with May to help “sort them [the EU] out”. And Jenkin warned that new trade deals with non-European countries would be impossible “if we remain shackled to the EU”.
In response, May insisted that nothing had changed: the UK would still leave the single market and the customs union. But the government’s proposal of “regulatory alignment” with the EU to resolve the Irish border problem has visibly unsettled Tory Brexiteers. May insisted that all would be resolved in “phase two” of the Brexit talks – but that she is struggling to make it this far reflects her political troubles. In a sharp question, Labour’s Louise Haigh told May to drop either her “red lines”, the DUP or “the pretence that she can govern the country”.
Such is the Conservatives’ disarray that even Jeremy Corbyn, who rarely raises Brexit, felt compelled to lead on the subject. Corbyn mocked the Tories’ own “coalition of chaos” and quipped that there were “one and a half billion reasons” why May should not have “forgotten” to brief the DUP.
The Prime Minister responded by mocking Labour’s own divisions on Brexit. “The only hard border is down the middle of the Labour Party,” she declared. As I wrote yesterday, Corbyn is playing a shrewd game by keeping all options open (including no Brexit) and, through ambiguity, holding his party together. Labour’s own lack of clarity made it harder for Corbyn to unsettle May today. But though the PM enjoyed mocking Labour’s divisions, it is becoming ever harder for her to disguise her party’s own.