Credibility-boosted May must show political clout to progress

Intensifying Brexit negotiations likely to make May move further towards EU position

British prime minister Theresa May: has she the political strength to follow through after the resignations? Few are  willing to say so with much confidence.  Photograph: Rick Findler

British prime minister Theresa May: has she the political strength to follow through after the resignations? Few are willing to say so with much confidence. Photograph: Rick Findler

 

Dublin is encouraged, but will wait and see .

The Government has long-nurtured doubts about both Theresa May’s will and her capacity to face down the hard Brexiteers in her cabinet and her party, and to push through a softer Brexit.

With her Chequers strong-arming on Friday, followed by a strong performance in the House of Commons on Monday, May has at least answered Dublin’s doubt about her will.

The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson – neither has been regarded as a serious figure by the Government for a long time – have been taken as evidence that she is serious this time.

But there were few in Dublin who were willing to vouch for May’s capacity to deliver what she says she wants. That, said one, is what we are about to find out. Speaking on condition of anonymity, senior figures in Dublin said that May had finally done what British ministers have been saying she would do for months.

Chancellor Philip Hammond and cabinet office minister David Lidington are the people Dublin looks to, and it was noteworthy that it was these men who the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney met during an intense visit to London last week.

He also met the British chief negotiator, and the most important person after May in the whole Brexit enterprise, Olly Robbins.

‘Soap opera’

One Irish Government source says that May has done exactly as Coveney was briefed she would last week. The resignations boost May’s credibility in both Dublin and Brussels. But now the question is whether she has the political strength to follow through. Few were willing to say so with much confidence.

“It’s hard to say. We just have to see how it plays out,” said one senior official in Dublin. “This is her soap opera. She has to get through it. If she does, then we’ll have the negotiations,” says another source.

The impatience with the British position – “they have taken two years to get to the starting point” is a common view in Dublin and Brussels – was increasingly evident at the recent summit in Brussels. In Dublin, it is tinged with something else – the knowledge that the British government has been criticising Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Coveney to their European counterparts in a bid to sideline Irish concerns about the Border.

Even if May survives, they believe she is unlikely to move towards the full 'Norway position' of accepting all the rules of the single market

British complaints about Varadkar’s youth and inexperience have made their way back to Government Buildings. Ministers wonder if that will continue with new faces in the British cabinet.

Backstop demand

Dublin’s priorities won’t change though: the unity of the 27, the bottom line on the Border. The demand for the backstop will remain. Though Dublin was careful not to say anything on Monday which would make life harder for May (“keep the head down” said one official), Varadkar’s spokesman said the commitments the UK had already signed up to must be translated into the Withdrawal Agreement and efforts on all outstanding issues, especially the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, must be intensified.

One senior official said the British privately accept that May will have to move further towards the EU position. However, even if May survives, they believe she is unlikely to move towards the full “Norway position” of accepting all the rules of the single market.

That means that if there is to be a deal that achieves even some of what May is seeking, the EU will have to move some of its red lines, too. At the moment, that appears not to be on the cards. But at least there is now – if May survives – a negotiation to come.