Theresa May’s weak grip on her party ironically strengthens her hand in Brussels

Theresa May’s weak grip on her party ironically strengthens her hand in Brussels

Theresa May’s position has never been stronger.

No, you didn’t misread that opening sentence. She really has been greatly strengthened by recent events.

Before last week, Mrs May’s situation was unenviable. Lacking a parliamentary majority, she was unable to read the riot act to her MPs. Nor could she make credible threats to the EU about walking away from the talks.

That changed last week.

David Davis, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their Brexiteer colleagues have hugely strengthened Mrs May’s hand. She may still lack a majority, but that weakness at home now translates into strength abroad.

Consider what she could now say to the EU’s leaders:

“Look, you know that I’ve tried to be reasonable but you can see what I’m facing at home. There is simply no way that I can force a sub-standard deal through Parliament. Either you give me a good deal or we all face a no-deal Brexit.”

That would concentrate some minds in the chancelleries of the EU.

Whatever you think of a no-deal Brexit in the long term, it would undoubtedly cause disruption in the short term. That disruption would not be limited to Britain. Many EU leaders would be nervous about the turbulence that a no-deal Brexit would have on their own people and businesses.

Even more important is that a no-deal Brexit would mean Britain leaving without paying the divorce bill. EU leaders know that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” If “nothing is agreed”, then the EU would be left up the budgetary creek without £40 billion worth of paddle. The consequences of this are obvious: rich countries would face larger bills, while the poor countries would face smaller payouts – a recipe for universal dissatisfaction.

EU leaders would also have to consider how Britain would react in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We would have to take dramatic action. We would need to put our economy onto the strongest possible footing. Taxes and regulation would be slashed while international trade deals would be pursued with unwavering determination. We would turn into exactly the sort of fearsome competitor that the EU desperately does not want to have next door.

The EU is, therefore, unenthusiastic about a no-deal scenario. If, on the other hand, they offered us a good deal, then they would avoid disruption, get their hands on a stonking great divorce payment and keep some influence over the regulatory policy of one of their closest neighbours.

They might have preferred, of course, to force us to take a deal that benefits them more than us. Last week, however, has put paid to that possibility. The British Parliament could clearly vote for no deal and the British Government is actively preparing for no deal.

Nothing about EU politics is certain but, faced with a stark choice between a good deal and no deal, it is hard to see them choosing the latter.

Mrs May’s position, therefore, could hardly be better. David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg have made it impossible for her to accept a bad deal and have therefore backed the EU into a corner. All Mrs May needs to do is deliver the coup de grâce.

Nor would this require a U-turn. The White Paper, after all, is not chiselled in stone. It was the Prime Minister’s view of the best deal that could reasonably be negotiated with Brussels. That may well have been true when it was drafted, but if her negotiating position improves, as it demonstrably has, Mrs May is perfectly entitled to see if she can get something better.

Politically speaking, it can often be darkest before the dawn. That could well be the case here. The Prime Minister’s hand has never been stronger. She has an opportunity to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat. It is surely worth a shot.