How Theresa May could win back the Brexiteers with her conference speech

“She just needs to leave the door ever so slightly ajar,” says one senior member of the ERG. But there is no way that the Prime Minister can.

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In one of the better lines of Boris Johnson’s speech to the Tory Conference fringe today, the former foreign secretary said that the best Brexit plan was not that of the European Research Group or Institute for Economic Affairs, but Theresa May’s.

Of course, Johnson was not talking about Chequers, but the vision for a clean break with the customs union, single market and European Court of Justice that the Prime Minister laid out in January 2017. Much has changed since; not least the shape of May’s Brexit and her relationship with Tory Leavers.

Brexiteers are in mutinous mood but a common refrain is that a good conference speech will buy the Prime Minister time and goodwill. But for the ERG, what does a good conference speech look like?

Perhaps surprisingly, it need not involve May ripping up Chequers on stage. One former minister who quit over the Prime Minister’s White Paper and now plays a key role in organising the Brexiteer guerrilla campaign says that she must demonstrate that she is willing to move in their direction.

“She just needs to leave the door ever so slightly ajar,” they said. “And, if you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors, leave enough space to build a bridge.” That bridge, ideally, would go to Canada, or at least most of the way there.

But while some members of May’s cabinet are pushing for her to build that bridge, the Prime Minister and her loyalists in government have spent conference doubling down on Chequers, despite the fact that there is no chance of it passing the Commons or surviving negotiations with Brussels.

The truth, of course, is that it is a mere opening offer to the EU, as much as the Prime Minister won’t admit it. This in theory means that it could over the course of negotiations be beaten into something that might be acceptable to the ERG. But the problem, as its leadership acknowledge, is that everything the Prime Minister has done on Brexit thus far – and her obligations on Ireland – suggests she will be moving in the opposite direction. Building a bridge to Norway, not Canada, which she has repeatedly ruled out.

Adopting the same jingoistic, Brussels-bashing tone that Jeremy Hunt did on Sunday might win her a little goodwill, but for Eurosceptics that merely highlights the inadequacies of her current approach as they see them.

Ultimately, there is no way that the ERG’s 80 MPs are ending this conference happy with the Prime Minister’s offer on Brexit. And save for hoping that the rebels might eventually buckle at the last moment and concede that a bad Brexit was better than no Brexit – one senior Eurosceptic likened their fight with the government to a game of chicken last night – ministers are not ending it with a plan B.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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