Theresa May declares ‘let them eat fudge’ in Brexit tussle

PUBLISHED: 14:27 05 July 2018

Theresa May faces a crunch few days as she tries to keep all sides happy on Brexit
Photo: PA / Tolga Akmen

Theresa May faces a crunch few days as she tries to keep all sides happy on Brexit Photo: PA / Tolga Akmen

PA Wire/PA Images

It appears we might be heading for a third-way Brexit.

This is the climax of Theresa May’s over-riding policy since she slid behind her desk at Number 10 – the fudge.

But let’s not be too harsh on the prime minister. What other choice does she have?

Britain is as divided as it has ever been. And the split is not a neat line down traditional party lines.

The referendum result was not an overwhelming victory for Leave. And because the majority of younger people voted to stay in the European Union (as opposed to the older generation who wanted out) the inevitable fact is the 48-52% split is narrowing. In fact many pollsters and political scientists predict that by 2020 – through the natural progression of the young being illegible to vote and older members of the electorate dying – if the vote was re-run it would be a dead heat.

So, imagine Mrs May’s conundrum? Personally she probably knows she won’t fight another general election as the Tory leader. But equally she will not want to be remembered as the leader that caused the collapse of the Conservative vote and let the Labour Party grab power. Therefore she has to do her best to keep both Remainers and Leavers happy.

Perhaps more pressing for her though is keeping her party happy. She has increasingly vocal pro-EU members of her backbenches making demands and the ever-vociferous Brexiteers threatening to topple her if she dares to cross their red lines.

And then there is the cabinet. They have indulged in open warfare for many months now. There has never been a more publicly fractious government top table. In years to come they won’t be remembered fondly for basically ignoring collective responsibility and making the prime minister’s task of delivering Brexit much more difficult. Some of them should hang their heads in shame.

So for the cabinet, her MPs and the great British public Mrs May has decided: “Let them eat fudge.”

But what will this fudge taste like? Mrs May is set propose a hybrid of the two previously floated concepts on the customs union: ‘maximum facilitation’ and the ‘customs partnership’.

It is not going to be easy though, foreign secretary Boris Johnson dubbed the partnership “crazy” while Brussels declared max-fac “bonkers”. What do you get if you add crazy and bonkers together?

And the name of this grand plan? The ‘facilitated customs arrangement’.

The key points are that Britain will be able to set its own tariffs on goods coming in while allowing EU tariffs on goods which pass through on the way to Europe.

But this third way is also expected to incorporate Brussels’ demands over regulatory alignment which would mean avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.

Sounds good doesn’t it? Ticks boxes? Well the Brexiteers are unlikely to agree. Regulatory alignment is just one of scores of red lines they have laid down.

And what about the EU? Why would Brussels agree to Britain having the ability to become a low-tariff nation just 21 miles off its coast while also giving access to its markets? What are we going to offer up in return?

In a bid to gain support for her plan Mrs May has visited Berlin to see Anglea Merkel. For all the talks that have already been held with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier it was always going to come down to what Mrs Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron backed.

Business is likely to be calmed by the promise of frictionless trade. During the past few weeks – timed to perfection by their army of aggressive lobbyists – businesses have released dark predictions in a bid to spook the prime minister.

First there was Airbus and now Jaguar Land Rover – one of the West Midland’s biggest employers – has warned of the threat to jobs a hard Brexit would cause. Many on the Brexit wing appear happy to ignore these warnings. They want a clean break. But Mrs May would be foolish to simply dismiss the concerns.

The time is now if those Brexiteers are going to make their move. If they find this third way unpalatable the calls for a no deal Brexit will grow. And that has been all but removed from the table by Mrs May.

So, if Mrs May sticks to her guns – she has flip-flopped before during this marathon fudge session – they will be left with no choice.

The battle over what type of Brexit Britain will get has reached a pivotal moment. What happens next will impact us all.

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