17 Jan 2019

Brexit: Cross party – but not all party – talks

One of the many to have sat in front of the PM in the last few hours says you had a sense that she was deeply conflicted. On one side of her was her Chief Whip, Julian Smith, a man who hasn’t entirely given up on putting back the Tory Party back together again and winning over the DUP. On her other side was her Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, who would dearly like to do the same but is more open-minded about reaching out to other parties. In between them, a Prime Minister whose ultimate loyalty has always been to the Conservative Party and who has triggered a fresh search for a wider consensus without, the MP suspected, truly believing in it.

Several visitors to No. 10 in the last 24 hours used the word “exhausted” to describe Theresa May’s appearance. Not entirely surprising given the week she’s been through. One (from a rival party) said she looked “desperate” and the people either side of her seemed to be doing “a lot of the talking.” One Tory MP said he felt the Prime Minister was “still wrestling inside” with whether the cross-party approach had any merit. One government source said it was “clearly dead” the moment Jeremy Corbyn rejected it.

The Prime Minister told one visitor that the Labour leader simply “wants chaos” to increase the chances of a general election. Labour MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper told reporters after their meeting with the Prime Minister’s deputy David Lidington  that they went in unaware there was a fresh email from Jeremy Corbyn in their in-boxes telling them not to go near the process. They probably would have ignored it even if they’d seen it. Both felt, as cross-party Select Committee Chairs, they had a duty to go in. Neither said so, but you suspect they think Jeremy Corbyn has a similar duty.

Tory MPs have been meeting the Prime Minister in batches of four or five or so at a time. Some have registered surprise (in one case horror) at who they’d been banded together with in the invitation list. The very breadth of the Tory opinion walking in the door tells you something of the scale of Theresa May’s problems. Add on the breadth of opinion of rival party spokespeople walking up and down Whitehall for meetings and, as one Tory MP put it, it’s hard to see how this will “achieve anything except illuminate the scale of the problem.”

The Plaid Cymru leader and former MP, Adam Price, said that in his meeting with David Lidington and Michael Gove there was some engagement with his talk of a second referendum. The ministerial duo spoke of a civil service briefing note on what timescale might be necessary for a second referendum. Mr Price said the talks gave him the impression that the government was trying to find out the intersects on the Venn diagram of political opinion.

“Everything depends,” one Tory MP visitor to the PM today said, “on which way she is leaning, to other parties or her own … and then it depends on whether they play ball.”

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