10 Jan 2019

Theresa May calls the unions

Theresa May has just started to do something Tory Prime Ministers haven’t done for a very long time and conduct a phone-round of trade union general secretaries.

As part of a Brexit outreach, trying to work out where opinion is amongst the wider Labour movement, the PM has called Unite’s Len McCluskey and is also planning to speak to the GMB’s Tim Roache.

After her meeting with Labour MPs led by John Mann, Mrs May’s team came away with the message that few were ready to vote for her on the basis of a pledge on workers’ rights but more could be available if there was a different approach to the final Brexit deal.

One who was in the conversation came away with the strong impression that could include talking about full membership of the Customs Union and a closer relationship with the Single Market.

Quite how the the Prime Minister can cobble together some outline of a future relationship in short order in time for a 29th March Brexit deadline is a mighty challenge. Some Labour MPs who are willing to engage with the government to avoid No Deal are nonetheless worried that they can’t trust a Tory Prime Minister who could be out on her ear the day after Brexit and not the Tory leader presiding over the key negotiations on the future relationship later in 2019 and beyond. On the other hand they are worried that Labour MPs (and Parliament in general) is getting a reputation in pro-Brexit Labour heartlands for trying to block Brexit.

Trade unionists will be very nervous about getting involved with the leader of a government they regularly and strongly condemn. Everyone is out of their comfort zone. But it looks like trade unionists are sufficiently worried about the economic impact of no deal to pick up the phone. Today’s news of car manufacturing job losses will only add to that calculation. For Theresa May’s part, some in the Soft Brexit camp of Cabinet may think it is an encouraging signal that she will move signficantly from her red lines if that can stop “no deal.”

The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, told me this morning that he had talked to Mrs May about indicative votes of the House of Commons to establish where the Prime Minister was though he acknowledged he wasn’t sure she was on side. Other Cabinet ministers have said privately that they think the Prime Minister has crossed the rubicon on this kind of approach.

It could be that the listening exercise ends up with little by way of concrete results. Mrs May would be aware that many in her party won’t tolerate her lurching towards much closer involvement in the EU’s institutions. Even if that and more ministerial resignations wasn’t a major issue there’s scarcely much time to finesse a whole outline approach to the future relationship when it’s taken two and a half years of internal government debate to come up with not very much .

But the Downing Street switchboard now has some numbers it hadn’t had for a long time. Strange times just got stranger.

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