James Forsyth: Time is fast running out for Theresa May, we need a sharp Brexit and a leader

AT political Cabinet on Tuesday morning, Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, warned ministers just how hard it was to hold the Tory party together right now.

He urged them not to stoke these tensions. He said noises off made it even more of a struggle to maintain unity.

Smith is right. The Tory party is dangerously divided, a split is a very real possibility.

He is also correct that when ministers speak out, they heighten these tensions.

But he didn’t mention the most crucial point — the need for LEADERSHIP.

One of the reasons ministers are pushing forward their own views in public is because there isn’t a clear Government position.

Angela Merkel, other EU leaders, businesses and voters in this country all don’t know what Theresa May wants Brexit to look like in the end.

Until there is clarity, ministers will continue to push their views in public and Tory MPs will squabble with each other about what the Government should be aiming for.

Mrs May’s defenders admit that this, in the words of one Cabinet minister, is “a bumpy period”. But they argue she has come through these before.

Mrs May has, however, ended these previous periods by taking a decision.

In January last year she gave the Lancaster House speech, setting out that Britain would leave the European Single Market.

In September she gave the Florence speech, setting out the UK wanted a transition period — and would pay for it.

In December she shook on the stage one deal with the EU.

In all three of these, there were decisions and compromises made that members of the Cabinet — including senior ones — did not like.

But, ultimately, they accepted that Mrs May was Prime Minister and had to lead.

I suspect the same dynamic would play out again if she gave a speech setting out the details of the economic relationship she wanted after Brexit.

After all, no one wants to be the person responsible for bringing down the Government and splitting the party.

Time is fast running out for Mrs May to decide on what trade-offs the UK is prepared to make to get a deal with the EU.

The Brexit inner-Cabinet meets twice next week in an effort to make some progress on this.

Both meetings are scheduled to last for two hours, which is longer than usual. But still not that long given how much needs to be thrashed out.

Since October last year, it has been clear Mrs May needed to get the Cabinet together and agree what kind of deal with the EU the UK is seeking.

But this is a now a matter of urgency. One former Cabinet minister tells me Mrs May should: “Lock them in Chequers and tell them they aren’t leaving until there’s a position.”

As one of those involved in the Government’s preparations for the next phase of negotiations warns, the alternative to Mrs May setting out the UK position is “more Merkel-style moments of ridicule in the run-up to the March council”.

This would undercut the PM’s standing at home. She simply cannot go on not offering more detail on what she wants.

Not even Mrs May’s harshest critics in the Tory party think she is in politics for the wrong reasons.

When she leaves office, she won’t advise dodgy governments for money, broker deals for disreputable companies for huge fees or try to turn herself into a celebrity.

But that same sense of duty that took her into politics, that made her stay on after the Election debacle, must now compel her to lead. For the national interest demands it.

To govern is to choose. It is her duty to decide, and quickly.

IT is amazing, and depressing, that ten months after the UK invoked Article 50, the two-year mechanism for leaving the EU, there are still rumblings in Whitehall about staying in a customs union with the EU.

This is a basic question, and one that should have been resolved long before Britain started the Article 50 process.

If Britain has a customs union with the EU, with a common external tariff, the UK cannot do comprehensive trade deals with other countries.

Some argue that this doesn’t matter as most of the UK’s economy is in services, and a customs union with the EU on goods wouldn’t preclude the UK striking its own, services-only deals. But this misses the point.

Imagine if the UK wanted to do a trade deal with China. Such a deal would almost certainly involve this country eliminating tariffs on Chinese-manufactured goods in exchange for UK companies being allowed to sell services into China.

A UK that could not even negotiate on goods would not be an attractive country to do a trade deal with. Now, these trade agreements will take time to negotiate – and our trading partners will want to know what our future economic relationship with the EU will be before finalising any agreement.

So there is a case for the UK remaining in the customs union for a year after the transition deal ends.

But for the UK to leave the EU and not regain the right to make its own, comprehensive trade deals would be a massive missed opportunity.

OPERATIVES from Conservative Campaign Headquarters came to address the party’s MPs this week.

They told them the party would start pumping resources into 48 marginal seats to try to ensure it holds them at the next election.

I am told this move is, partly, in response to how nervous MPs are being made by Momentum and the mass-membership Labour Party’s campaigning activities.

The Tories think they are doing well if they can get out a few dozen activists.

Labour and Momentum can put hundreds of people on the streets without breaking sweat.

But with politics so volatile – the number of voters changing party at the last election was at a level not seen since the Great Depression – the Tories need a much broader campaigning strategy.

Just shoring up their most marginal seats won’t be enough.

  • EVEN Theresa May’s Tory critics don’t expect anything to move in the next few weeks. But they have a growing sense that something will happen soon. As one of them puts it to me: “There will be a smash.” The most likely flashpoint is the May local elections. Poor results could convince Tory MPs that the comfort they are taking from level pegging with Labour in the polls is mistaken.

Emily surprises with sweet sixteen

EMILY THORNBERRY got to stand in for Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.

These appearances give Thornberry, a confident Commons performer, a chance to show off her debating skills.

But her choice of topic caused eyebrows to raise in Westminster. With Tory MPs sounding off against their leader, the Government split over Brexit and the Tories divided over tuition fees, she had plenty of material to work with.

But instead, the ambitious Thornberry devoted several of her questions to votes at 16. An odd choice to say the least.

The cynic in me can’t help wondering whether the choice was influenced by the elections that 16-year-olds can vote in: Labour leadership ones.

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