15 Sep 2017

May Europe speech: what is Boris’s real bottom line?

Theresa May has named the date for her big speech on Europe without being 100% sure whether she has the backing of all Cabinet ministers for the words.

It’s a high-stakes move which she can’t yet be completely confident she will pull off.

After a summer of pressure from senior ministers to announce a status quo transition of up to three years (with continuing payments into the EU budget and continuing submission to EU laws and powers), the PM seems close to signalling just that. Even though she became convinced by the need for such a transition, she has been most reluctant to concede continuing freedom of movement for years after Brexit and looking for some proof of new controls she can wave to voters without collapsing the whole transition deal.

But Boris Johnson is said to be less than convinced by this neat plan. He is hardline on “the Brexit bill” and wanting a stricter limit on transition duration than Philip Hammond has signalled. There is one week to bring him onside.

Earlier in the Summer, Mr Johnson held out against the government’s acknowledgement that there could be indirect ECJ jurisdiction in the UK post-Brexit. Allies say he had some Pro-Brexit ministerial support for that battle – though it appears to have folded. On this project some allies say he has Michael Gove’s support. Though allies of Michael Gove say he was “brought round to the transition” over the summer, not least when he saw the scale of the post-Brexit workload in his own department, DEFRA, which his predecessor Andrea Leadsom didn’t appear to have dented.

Is this a moment of serious danger for Theresa May?

To listen to some in Whitehall you would think just that. Squeezed between newly assertive Cabinet ministers pulling in different directions, could she be about to lose her Foreign Secretary? Would he really walk?

Past precedent suggests a path will be found through, jobs will be kept and markers are being put down (“be in no doubt how unhappy I was about this decision”), constituencies are being played to.

But you hear of envoys being sent from No 10 to the FCO on “getting to know you” sessions, The Times yesterday reported whips were on suicide watch. Tory MPs ask: “You hearing Boris might flounce out?”

Well, yes, we are hearing that. But, like Downing Street, we are not quite sure how seriously to take it yet and what the former Mayor of London’s real bottom line is.

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