May will need Machiavellian cunning to avoid losing her way in Florence

London Letter: UK PM must navigate careful path as she seeks Brexit transition deal

Florence bound: Theresa May at Downing Street. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty

Florence bound: Theresa May at Downing Street. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty

 

Theresa May chose Florence for her big European speech next week because it is Europe’s “historic heart”, a trading city with which Britain shared “deep cultural economic ties spanning centuries”, according to her official spokesman. It is also, as everyone at Westminster reminded one another yesterday, the home of Machiavelli, from whom the prime minister could learn a thing or two.

The most famous Englishwoman ever to have visited Florence, Lucy Honeychurch in EM Forster’s A Room with a View, got lost in the city soon after she arrived, an unhappy omen for the prime minister. Forster’s heroine was travelling with her bossy cousin Charlotte Bartlett, for whose role there are numerous candidates in May’s circle.

On one side is Philip Hammond, her self-regarding chancellor of the exchequer, who sought to reshape the prime minister’s Brexit policy while she was on her summer holiday. On the other is Steve Baker, now a Brexit minister but formerly the shop steward for hardline Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches.

May must navigate between these two bossy cousins if, as anticipated, she uses the Florence speech to outline the terms of the transition arrangement that the United Kingdom is seeking as it leaves the European Union.

“Standstill transition”

Hammond, along with most of British business, wants a transition period that is as close as possible to the status quo – “a standstill transition” in the instant jargon of Brexit. Labour has taken this position to its logical conclusion, arguing that the UK should remain in the single market and customs union during the transition.

One source close to the ERG told me that the intention was not to eliminate the standstill transition but to ensure that it could not become a permanent arrangement

As a consensus started to emerge, Baker’s friends in the European Research Group started collecting signatures for a letter warning May against the standstill transition. Despite its name, whose initials make it sound like a loyalist paramilitary group, the ERG is essentially a WhatsApp group with attitude.

The plot was uncovered before the letter could be published, but the message came across clearly that the Brexiteers were baring their teeth. But were they?

One source close to the group told me that the intention was not to eliminate the standstill transition but to ensure that it could not become a permanent arrangement. This means defining the final objective before designing the transition, and it also suggests that the prime minister should avoid making arguments in favour of the status quo that could be used to justify making it permanent.

Conservative conference

The prime minister’s speech comes a little over a week before Conservatives meet in Manchester for their annual conference. “It will be a question of supporting the leader’s position or attacking it,” according to one backbencher.

May has little to fear from the Remainers in her party, who have decided to postpone any push for a radical change in policy on Brexit until public opinion changes. They could have a long wait. In the meantime, the amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill tabled by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, the most cerebral Tory Remainer, are mostly procedural.

If the government compromises on issues such as Henry VIII powers, which allow ministers to change laws with little parliamentary scrutiny, the Tory rebels will fall into line. Labour’s amendments seek to commit the government to staying in the single market during the transition and to a parliamentary vote before the legislation is triggered, but most Conservative Remainers will not support them.

If the prime minister cannot persuade her party to pay the bill she can, in the words of Boris Johnson, go whistle for her transition

As usual, the most immediate threat to the prime minister comes from the right, and some Brexiteers have been sounding warnings in recent days. Jacob Rees-Mogg said this week that the UK had no legal obligation to pay the EU “a brass farthing” as it leaves.

The farthing was taken out of circulation in 1960, nine years before Rees-Mogg was born, but his daft language should not obscure his serious intent. A successful Brexit negotiation requires a trade-off between the divorce bill and the transition deal. If the prime minister cannot persuade her party to pay the bill she can, in the words of Boris Johnson, “go whistle” for her transition.

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