Theresa May’s woolly approach is holding uncompromising forces on both sides of her party at bay - for now
- Credit: PA
Theresa May pulled a blinder this week. She declared while on tour with a pack of political journalists that it was 'red, white and blue' Brexit she is after.
It was a permutation of the similar theme of last week's story, when we found out that it might be the case the government was going to seek to 'have its cake and eat it' once it left the European Union from an aide who made the age-old mistake of being caught by a long lens with her notepad on show.
Such meaningless phrases are rightly getting stick from almost all quarters.
But such are the tensions in Mrs May's party that being vague and woolly has so far kept the uncompromising forces on either side of her party at bay.
Fears that up to 40 Tory backbenchers were ready to back a Labour motion calling for her to set out her Brexit plan show the stick she is coming under from the more Europhile wing of the Conservatives, many of whom want to retain access to the single market.
But she is facing equally vocal calls from the other side. In a recent Sunday Telegraph article, 60 Tory MPs urged her to commit Britain to a so-called hard Brexit – pulling out of the single market and customs union.
The problem for the premier is that officially the EU referendum campaign did not come with a blueprint – although some MPs claim the government does have a mandate to cut the UK's close existing trade ties with the bloc.
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In the end she has appeared to bow to the left of her party accepting the motion, but with her own condition that MPs agree to her timetable to fire the starting gun on an EU exit at the end of March. Of course the word 'plan' is suitably vague not to tie her hands and to buy her a bit more time. Her plan could be a one-liner, or a whole dossier of her wishes.
We can no doubt predict she will use the get-out that any more details will hurt negotiations.
Of course, at some point she will have to confront the divisions on her benches.
For now though, her comment this week that she is 'interested in all these terms that have been identified – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, black Brexit, white Brexit, grey Brexit' will give hope to both sides of the divide. But Brexit negotiations are likely to come to a head sooner rather than later. The EU Commission's Brexit negotiator put in charge of the UK departure announced that it will take 18 months to do a deal, not two years.
Although he was equally light on clues about the EU position, declaring there would be no talks on trade until the exit process has been agreed. But he is taking a leaf out of Mrs May's book and has come up with a catchphrase of his own,
We did learn that he wanted to keep calm and negotiate.