Nothing has changed: What we (didn’t) learn from Theresa May at the Liaison Committee

The prime minister strove to avoid committing meaningful news but restated her opposition to no-deal – and cast doubt on a potential compromise with Labour.

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Earlier this week, a team of researchers at the University of York found that Theresa May is the most evasive prime minister in history – and her appearance before the Liaison Committee this afternoon did nothing to dispel that reputation. 

Under questioning from the chairs of every select committee – focussing predominantly on Brexit – May strove to avoid committing meaningful news. But there were nonetheless several telling moments over a shifty 90 minutes from which we can learn much about the government’s likely direction of travel under the incumbent prime minister and whoever follows her.

May is still unwilling to countenance no deal

That the prime minister is unwilling to countenance leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement has been obvious for some months. Last month, for the first time, she warned colleagues that they faced “a stark choice: leave the European Union with a deal, or not leave at all”. 

Under some pressure from senior Tories on the liaison committee – Bernard Jenkin and Patrick McLoughlin – May reluctantly restated that case today, albeit in more circumlocutory fashion. 

Asked by the former whether she still believed no deal to be better than a bad deal, she said: “When I first made that reference, I was talking in the abstract. It was in Lancaster House, we are now no longer talking in the abstract.”

McLoughlin, meanwhile, asked whether a no-deal Brexit – despite remaining the legal default on 31 October – was now, following the passage of Oliver Letwin and Yvette Cooper’s bill to force an extension of Article 50 and other expressions of parliamentary opposition, politically impossible.

May did not rebut his line of argument. Instead she noted that leaving without a deal was not entirely within the gift of the executive, and stressed that securing an agreement remained “by far the best outcome”.

Despite the mood in her own party, she is not for turning on no-deal – or the merits of her own.

Negotiations with Labour are essentially over branding – and no shift appears to be in the offing

Jeremy Corbyn’s delegation to talks with the government have long complained that, on the question of a customs union, the argument deployed by ministers contends that the customs arrangements already in the withdrawal agreement and political declaration are effectively a customs union – if only they’d look a bit harder. 

May gave that gambit another airing today. “Various terms are used in relation to customs; sometimes different terms are used to mean the same thing,” she said, before complaining to Home Affairs committee chair Yvette Cooper that the customs question was too often framed “in terms of existing models and language”. 

Similarly, the prime minister declined to deny Cooper’s assertion that she was unwilling to countenance the UK staying subject to the common external tariff – a red line for Labour, who believe the permanent customs union they want is impossible without it.

Though some Conservative MPs fear the prime minister is make the u-turn of a political lifetime and agree a customs union deal with Corbyn, there was little evidence this afternoon of her preparing to do so. 

The Brexit Secretary will lead talks over the future relationship

May provided an interesting nugget under questioning from Bill Cash, the veteran Brexiteer, when she revealed that the Brexit Secretary would be the UK’s lead negotiator in talks with the EU over a trade deal. 

That is not only a departure from the divorce talks – which, to the consternation of Dexeu ministers and Tory Leavers, were led by Downing Street – but from the expectations of many on Whitehall, who had anticipated that they would be led by the Cabinet Office, with Dexeu folding. 

The internal politics of the Conservative Party, however, would have made such centralisation incredibly tricky – which May appears to have acknowledged. 

The government is no closer to publishing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill

Despite the best efforts of Bernard Jenkin, May would not be drawn on when the government intends to publish the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – the piece of domestic legislation that will enshrine her much-maligned deal in law. 

Her shiftiness will do nothing to dispel suspicions among Brexiteers such as Jenkin that ministers are holding off doing so for fear that the bill’s contents will reveal just how tightly May’s deal will lock the UK into the economic and regulatory orbit of Brussels. 

Tory Brexiteers aren’t getting any less angry

Bill Cash, as ever, was implacable, and a crescendo of tetchy questioning from the European Scrutiny Committee chair ended with him barking at May to “get on with” the job of leaving the EU. 

It’s that sort of impatient indignation, commonplace among Cash and his fellow travellers, is what will, soon enough, bring an end to May’s premiership – and make the job of her successor, whatever their theological inclination on the Brexit question, as good as impossible too.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.