by John Ward
There are very strong signals tonight that Theresa May is going for a massive gamble in order to achieve Brexit by the Flextension deadline of May 22nd. If she gives way on Labour’s EU customs union, all anarchic Hell will break loose in the Conservative Party.
We all know only too well that Westminster is a rumour mill that can only rarely be trusted. But when things seem afoot in Whitehall, there is often more to it. Last April 23rd, The Slog posted as follows:
‘The official line on the Labour-Tory “impasse” talks is that they were adjourned during the Easter recess….Strictly speaking, the physical adjournment was accurate; but all the MPs and civil servants involved worked nonstop during the break. I greeted these talks a fortnight ago with an air of disdain for all things both hopeless and harmful…..Today I remain reasonably happy with that opinion.’
There are now signs that my judgement was wrong. But then, nine days is a long time in politics.
Number Ten has gone out of its way since then to suggest that Brexit isn’t a highly placed item on the agenda. Last night, I observed, ‘Most people (let’s face it) are thoroughly enjoying what they see as a holiday from Brexit. They are very silly so to be doing, but we’ve been here before – so let’s move on.’
Moving on regardless is not a good idea when dealing with the machinations of Theresa May. Perhaps I should’ve heeded my own prose:
‘Mrs May is not going to get her EU Withdrawal Agreement diktat through without some kind of pact with Corbynia….her main objective is to get out of the EU with a Withdrawal Bill passed before May 22nd….because that and only that will save the Conservative Party from ceding MEP power to Nigel Farage, while handing the rest of it to the Labour Party.’
At some point this morning (Wednesday 1st May) the Whitehall equivalent of RAF fighter command’s “Scramble chaps!” order rang out along the corridors of power. It may have been a false alarm, but the impression given was that the Prime Minister had caved on the Customs Union issue.
This isn’t just any old Red line in the shifting sands of Brexit betrayal.
Accepting the concept of a permanent Customs Union makes a nonsense of Brexit’s biggest aim for most supporters: complete freedom to make separate trade deals with sovereign States beyond the European Union.
Late this afternoon, a trusted source told The Times that Labour has now seen “clear evidence that the government is prepared to explore shifts in its position”. All day, both the PM and her advisers have refused to confirm that Number Ten’s ‘off the table’ view of a permanent EU Customs Union within Brexit has changed. Backbenchers became especially suspicious when, in a session today, Theresa May was evasive.
There is a new optimism around those close to Keir Starmer. Whitehall insiders confide that Olly Robbins seems more relaxed than for quite some time.
Stay tuned: we might be about to hear the Biggest Bang in British politics since September 3rd 1939.