Theresa May: Chequers or checkmate?

By Adnan Chowdhury, member of the YCC

It’s been over a year and a half since the UK voted to leave the European Union, and there has been little tangible development in Brexit negotiations. The financial settlement has been agreed, but Theresa May’s Cabinet still appears to be divided on the length of the Brexit transition, regulatory alignment with the EU and is struggling with rebels over Brexit legislation. That makes the next week crucial.

May has tasked her senior ministers with delivering a series of Brexit speeches, as part of the Government’s ‘Road to Brexit’ narrative that will culminate in a keynote speech by the PM herself on 1 March. It is being billed as being as significant as her Lancaster House and Florence speeches, and she will need the full backing of her Cabinet in order to announce anything meaningful.

Given the lack of significant substance of the ministerial speeches so far, it’s clear she has her work cut out to unite the Brexiteer and Remain factions of her Cabinet. She’s ordered her Brexit Cabinet Sub-Committee to Chequers, and has taken her closest allies in Gavin Barwell, Julian Smith, Olly Robbins and Robbie Gibb with her in a show of force.

How convincing they can be with the likes of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove remains to be seen. The leaked letter to the Prime Minister from the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs doesn’t help. Add to that the headache of a resurgent Labour Party finally deciding to clarify its Brexit position next week. It’s understood that Jeremy Corbyn is close to giving support to “a customs union”, with Labour likely to support amendments to that effect in the Commons as the Customs Bill goes through Parliament. The opportunity to put further pressure on the Government on such a divisive issue is a smart move by the Labour leader: it will finally mark a clear policy divide on Brexit with the Conservatives, placate the vast majority of the Labour membership and voters, and will even begin positioning Corbyn’s Labour as being on the side of business. Who would have thought?

Theresa May is being backed into a corner from all sides. The Labour Party is beginning to step up, pro-Brexit MPs are growing increasingly frustrated at perceived concessions to the Europeans, and the EU Council Summit is looming at the end of March. In addition to Brexit, the Prime Minister has the local elections to worry about in May with several councils expected to swing to Labour. She is also wrestling to keep her domestic political narrative on the agenda through the Industrial Strategy and environmental policy.

Chequers and the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech next week is seen as make-or-break for a ‘successful’ Brexit. If she doesn’t get her way, it’ll surely be checkmate for her premiership.