Theresa May's final push for the finish line

Written by Gemma Fraser on 3 December 2018 in Inside Politics

After 20 months of negotiations, the PM has just a week left to convince MPs that her deal is in fact the best deal 

Image credit: PA

It has been a long, hard marathon, full of seemingly endless hills, but now Theresa May is pulling all her energy together for the sprint finish.

In the final days of negotiations – a whole two and a half years after Britain voted to leave the EU – she will undertake one of her toughest challenges yet as she tries to convince parliament to back her Brexit plan.

The date for the ‘meaningful vote’ has been set for 11 December, so while most people will be rushing around buying Christmas presents and stock-piling festive food, May will be focused on getting those MPs, who could force her hard-fought negotiations to crumble around her like a flaky mince pie, on board with her deal.

As with those companies plying their Black Friday wares, if you listen to May, her deal is “the best possible deal” on offer.

It’s a phrase she has repeated so often that it’s conceivable that she might actually believe it herself.

But, like that ‘bargain’ tablet you panic-bought on Cyber Monday because there was £30 off – when really it was £50 cheaper in the summer – if you scratch the surface, you will find significant problems with the “best deal possible”.

Perhaps it’s the fishing policy, the Irish border, or the single market and customs union, or the backstop. Or, indeed, Donald Trump’s revelation that the deal could stop the UK trading with the US.

The list goes on and on.

May, however, like a petulant teenager, has an answer for everything.

Penning her ‘letter to the nation’, she said: “We will take back control of our borders, by putting an end to the free movement of people once and for all.

“Instead of an immigration system based on where a person comes from, we will build one based on the skills and talents a person has to offer.

“Instead, we will be able to spend British taxpayers’ money on our own priorities, like the extra £394 million per week that we are investing in our long-term plan for the NHS.

“And we will take back control of our laws, by ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK.

“In future, our laws will be made, interpreted and enforced by our own courts and legislatures.”

And, she continued: “We will be out of EU programmes that do not work in our interests: out of the Common Agricultural Policy that has failed our farmers, and out of the Common Fisheries Policy that has failed our coastal communities.

“Instead, we will be able to design a system of agricultural support that works for us, and we will be an independent coastal state once again, with full control over our waters.

“The deal also protects the things we value.

“EU citizens who have built their lives in the United Kingdom will have their rights protected, as will UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.

“A free trade area will allow goods to flow easily across our borders, protecting the many skilled jobs right across the country that rely on integrated supply-chains.”

May even went as far as to claim her Brexit deal “works for every part of our country”, which ruffled a few feathers, to say the least.

Nicola Sturgeon immediately hit back, describing the letter as “desperate” and reiterated her calls for alternatives such as staying in the single market and customs union or holding a second referendum.

Sturgeon tweeted: “I don’t say this lightly, but almost nothing in this desperate letter is true.

“This is a bad deal, driven by the PM’s self-defeating red lines and continual pandering to the right of her own party. Parliament should reject it and back a better alternative – SM/CU or #PeoplesVote.”

And SNP Brexit Secretary Mike Russell said it “does not work for Scotland”, despite the PM’s insistence that it does.

“It takes Scotland out of the European Union against our democratic wishes, it removes us from the single market against our economic interests, and it would put us at a competitive economic disadvantage compared to Northern Ireland,” he said.

“The only thing it guarantees is years of damaging uncertainty, which will cost jobs and hit living standards and, by ending freedom of movement, will make it harder to attract the staff we need for our NHS.

“That is why the Scottish Government will now work with others to get a better deal for Scotland within the European single market and customs union – which is eight times bigger than the UK market alone – and why we support another referendum on EU membership.”

In an attempt to bolster support for her deal, the PM adopted the ultimate charm offensive and decided to go on tour to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to personally deliver her “best deal possible” message.

She also agreed to a TV debate, seemingly relishing the opportunity to go head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn.

She explained to The Sun: “Because I have got a plan. He hasn’t got a plan.”

You could almost hear her stomping her leopard print kitten heels on the ground as she said it.

The SNP insisted they should not be left out of any televised debate, and even went as far as to write to Sky News bosses to ensure they got their say.

Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader, said: “Sky News are right to look to stage a televised Brexit debate, but wrong to want to host a head-to-head debate between May and Corbyn.

“The idea that this is a binary choice between a Tory hard Brexit or a Labour hard Brexit is grossly misleading.”

The day after the European Council summit, which saw the 27 leaders give their blessing after less than an hour’s discussion, May took her statement to the House of Commons to sell her Brexit deal.

She warned MPs that EU leaders would not be returning to the negotiating table if parliament rejected the agreement.

She said: “We can back this deal, deliver on the vote of the referendum and move on to building a brighter future of opportunity and prosperity for all our people.

“Or this House can choose to reject this deal and go back to square one. Because no one knows what would happen if this deal doesn’t pass.”

Square one, for some, seems like the better option, and momentum is gathering for a Plan B.

While May insists she doesn’t have one, almost half of her cabinet are understood to have held talks to weigh up the possibility of backing a soft Brexit option if parliament rejects her deal on 11 December.

The ‘Norway plus’ plan, suggested by Tory backbencher Nick Boles, would, according to its supporters, be the only alternative that the EU could get on board with at this late stage as it would not require any change in the withdrawal agreement.

But May said the option “does not deliver on the vote of the British people”.

She defiantly told the Commons: “People have said to me it wasn’t possible for me to negotiate a deal with the EU. No sooner do I, than people are saying, ‘well, what’s the next thing you’re going to negotiate?’”

Meanwhile, European judges in Luxembourg have been considering a legal challenge over whether the UK can unilaterally halt Brexit by reversing Article 50 which was lodged by a cross-party group of six Scottish MPs, MEPs and MSPs.

Green MSP Andy Wightman – one of the politicians behind the legal case – said: “The question as to whether MPs can unilaterally revoke Article 50 is vital, as the chaos around Brexit shows no sign of being resolved. The UK parliament must be fully informed of all of its options.”

After the hearing, he tweeted: “Decision to be made on a date to be announced in due course. A thorough debate, though, with well argued positions all round.”

Back in the UK, May kicked off her charm offensive tour in Wales, before moving on to Northern Ireland and Scotland, with none of them offering her a warm welcome.

One of Plaid Cymru’s deputy leaders, Rhun ap Iorwerth, said: “We don’t think a day trip to Wales cuts it, from Plaid Cymru’s point of view.

“We’ve had too many examples, throughout the whole process, of Wales being side-lined.

“She pays us a visit and expects to sell a deal that she has paid too scant attention to Wales’ opinions on – we’re not buying any of it.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the trip to Northern Ireland was a “waste of time” as parliament would not support her deal.

Analysis of which MPs will vote for and against the Brexit deal in the meaningful vote consistently suggests defeat for May.

Despite having just days left to win them over, she must feel like she still has a very long way to go – and all of it uphill – before she finally reaches the finishing line.

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