12 Dec 2017

Did Theresa May’s Brexit deal save her job last week?

As the dust settles on last week it’s emerging that the sharks really were circling around the Prime Minister.

Some Tories felt that in the aftermath of the abortive mission to Brussels on Monday, called off after a threatened walk-out from the government by the DUP, the Prime Minister had out-lived her usefulness.

One prominent backbencher said the danger came because things looked like they’d reached a point when “the government can’t deliver its principle stated objective.” By that he meant Brexit. “It’s a bit like riding a bicycle … you need to carry on moving at reasonable speed. Last week, that was a moment when the bicycle slowed down dangerously,” the MP said.

Some in government scented the danger as the week wore on. The feeling was that the DUP might withdraw support for the government and some Tory Brexiteers scented decay and thought the end should now come for Theresa May’s premiership. The numbers ready to call for Mrs May’s departure was thought to be comfortably over the threshold.

Mrs May’s dash to Brussels on Friday¬†wasn’t just a pre-dawn rush to fit in with a tightening Brussels deadline. It looks like the Prime Minister was trying to hold onto her job.

How had it got to this situation?

There are many different versions of what went wrong in contacts between the government and the DUP but the DUP were more outside the loop than anyone who has followed their dogged approach to Northern Ireland talks might think possible.

One Whitehall official blamed Olly Robbins, the UK’s senior official in the negotiating team who is prone to secrecy and hoarding information.

Another senior official thought the problem was spawned by government trying to observe the proprieties of a “confidence and supply” arrangement. That, the source said, unlike a Coalition, prohibits the sharing of government documents with outsiders.

The DUP didn’t see the full text until Mrs May was on her way into lunch in the Berlaymont Building and they exploded. That’s a better word than “panicked” (the one I used in my live on Monday – apologies). Now the government must rebuild relations there as well as with the Irish Government while at the same time winning friends and arguments in the Phase 2 talks with the EU27 after they’ve worked out what the government position is on the future relationship, starting with ministerial meetings at the beginning of next week.

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