George Pascoe Watson: The PM had priced in her latest setbacks
Theresa May is already preparing for the next round of battles - and possibly for a January reshuffle.
-- THE INSIDER --
“I’m a pretty determined person. I am not someone who gives up.” So Theresa May told The Sunday Times’s peerless Tim Shipman a few months ago. And boy, she wasn’t kidding.
The Prime Minister has been on a rollercoaster of ups and downs since the snap General Election and this week has typified her slings and arrows. A Commons defeat at the hands of Remainer rebels might have been a shattering blow to more fragile leaders. But Mrs May bounced back, got on a plane to Brussels and clinched the breakthrough on phase one talks with EU leaders regardless.
The Premier has already braced herself for the shocks, disappointments and sheer graft that running a minority government demands. She’s priced in these setbacks.So people around the PM in number 10 report that she’s back in the saddle and preparing for the next round of battles she faces in the run-up to Christmas.
The most obvious challenge will be winning the crunch Commons vote on Britain’s Brexit date. Be under no doubt. Rebels have had a first taste of victory and they’ve survived. They will be buoyed by the support they won – and resolve stiffened by the attacks they endured from their own side.
They’ll be back next week to repeat their act of what their colleagues view as extreme tyranny – unless their constituency chairs put the thumbscrews on them.
Mrs May could yet be forced to drop the leaving date to avoid defeat in the Withdrawal Bill. But pragmatism may be the best way forward. The Conservatives have, of course, crept ahead in the polls. Yet it’s still important that she ends the term with a commanding performance at PMQs, enough to rally her troops and send them back to their seats with some festive cheer. She’ll then fly to Poland with some Cabinet colleagues for a charm offensive as she begins the painstaking task of building fresh strategic relationships.
The breakthrough on negotiations was a significant moment today. As was the round of applause she received from fellow leaders on Thursday night. Mrs May and her team now have 12 weeks to clinch a deal which will shape this country’s future. But she has battled hard for – and won- the prosaic but important right to help shape the EU’s negotiating guidelines.
For most of us, this is technical detail. But bear in mind the complete inability to shape this led to painful and costly delay to the phase one talks. Number 10 figures say they hope business leaders will recognise they are in a far better place than just eight days ago. Then there was real concern about the collapse of talks altogether. This would have led to calamitous delay to trade talks. No trade deals, no certainty for industry.
But now there is a timetable, and both Britain and the EU have agreed to finalise trade discussions by March. Of course, some critics will complain it’s going to take five years, minimum, for Britain to finally escape the clutches of the European Court of Justice and the customs union. But Mrs May isn’t interested. Her view is she is delivering a smooth and orderly transition. This matters for this country’s employers, and therefore the nation’s workforce.
The PM’s view is that businesses will be reassured that they will now only have to adapt to one set of rules as we move to a new world order. Mrs May also points out that she has won permission to start scoping out what engagement with third party countries will look like. There is movement. It’s agonising and the next 12 weeks could be even more bruising than those in phase one.
I’m told that talk of “Canada plus plus” is just that – and EU figures are in no mood to meet us on this dream. But Mrs May begins the Christmas period with at least some comfort, despite the challenges this week ahead.
She was repeatedly warned she couldn’t get her Withdrawal Bill through the Commons – and she’s so far won 35 out of 36 votes. She was told there was little chance of a phase one EU deal by Christmas – but that’s exactly what she’s delivered. For ministers and ambitious MPs in the Conservative ranks, the big New Year question is “does Mrs May have the appetite for a reshuffle?”
George Pascoe Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.
Picture by: Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images