There was a moment last week when it looked as if the game was finally up. ‘This is it,’ a leading Tory backbencher told me. ‘I’ve always argued Theresa needs to be given more time, but if she can’t move the negotiations forward then she’s going to have to step aside for someone who can.’
That was on Thursday morning; 24 hours later Theresa May wasn’t stepping aside for anyone. Instead, she was celebrating the single greatest achievement of her tortuous premiership.
Over the coming weeks the ‘December Deal’ to move on to Stage 2 of the Brexit negotiations will be unpicked and traduced. There will be muttering about messy compromises, cans being kicked down roads, and great betrayals. But the Prime Minister said she would find a way to break the Brexit logjam. Her critics said she would fail. She was right, and they were wrong.
Theresa May is celebrating the single greatest achievement of her tortuous premiership
To fully understand all that Mrs May has achieved, it’s necessary to appreciate what was so nearly lost. The Brexit talks – the most significant national moment since the Second World War – came close to complete implosion.
The Northern Irish peace process nearly disappeared into the same void. Had that happened, the Government would have collapsed, a General Election would have followed, and Jeremy Corbyn could have fulfilled his chilling prophecy of being PM by Christmas.
Those who have knowingly claimed the events of the past seven days were the product of some careful Westminster choreography could not be wider of the mark. ‘People don’t realise just how close we came to catastrophe,’ one Minister tersely informed me.
That may well be because, for much of the week, impending tragedy was shrouded by high farce. At lunchtime on Thursday I received a call informing me that new wording on a prospective deal had been presented by Downing Street to the DUP. They were demanding 32 changes to the original text. The Prime Minister was conceding six. ‘It’s 50/50 whether they’ll go for it,’ a Government official told me.
Despite Mrs May’s success, there have been a number of missteps by the Government
At that very moment I turned the corner into the parliamentary press canteen to see the DUP MPs huddled together. Suddenly aware they were generating media interest, they hurriedly left and reconvened in the open-plan eating area in Westminster’s Portcullis House.
They arrived just as parliamentary staffers were availing themselves of the special Christmas menu. And there – over roast Norfolk turkey with brie fondue and cranberry sauce, while surrounded by House of Commons workers sporting party hats, fake moustaches and springy snowman headbands – the fate of a nation was decided.
The end of the line for Red Len?
IS UNITE leader Len McCluskey about to fall on his hammer and sickle?
Members of the super-union’s executive have been told they will be required to attend a special meeting on January 6, followed by a meeting of senior regional officials on January 9.
Formally, it’s supposed to be discussing disposal of part of Unite’s property portfolio, but there’s growing speculation this may be a smokescreen for Red Len to make an announcement on his future.
McCluskey’s narrow victory in April’s leadership election has already been overshadowed by accusations of rule breaches, the sacking of his opponent Gerard Coyne and a formal referral to the certification officer.
According to one insider: ‘No one believes he’s called a special meeting to discuss some old buildings. Coyne gave him such a scare that if the election had to be rerun, Len could easily lose.
Corbyn’s desperate for him to stay, but a lot of people think he may be ready to call it a day.’ If he did, Labour’s leader would have lost one of his most powerful allies. Perhaps a move to the House of Lords could solve the problem?
Despite Mrs May’s success, there have been a number of missteps by the Government. The decision to bow to Irish objections to including the DUP in direct negotiations meant initial consultations with Arlene Foster were conducted over the phone, creating the Chinese-whispers that lead to Monday’s orange eruption once the actual text was revealed. No10 were much too slow to respond to EU grandstanding and briefing on the terms of the initial deal. The decision to sit down for a convivial lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker before it had been signed off smacked of hubris.
But in politics you don’t earn points for artistic merit, you are judged on results. And for the first time since she crossed the threshold of Downing Street, May has delivered the goods.
Her decision to hold out for concessions on Citizens’ Rights – which saw many condemning her as some sort of Brexit war criminal – has been vindicated. The divorce bill has been settled at a figure well below the €60billion many had anticipated – and significantly above the ‘red line’ drawn by her rebellious Foreign Secretary. And the supposedly ‘unsquarable circle’ of Northern Ireland was redrawn with some deft prime ministerial cubism.
Each of these would stand alone as a significant success. But the Prime Minister has done more than secure a series of tactical victories. She has also managed to reshape the structure of Brexit itself.
The prospect of a cliff-edge Brexit is now all but dead. Yes, some of those who seek the purity of catastrophe have spent the weekend vainly mouthing ‘nothing is agreed till everything is agreed’.
They argue that if trade talks collapse, then the deal struck in the early hours of Friday falls, and we may again hurl ourselves on to the tender mercies of the WTO. But they are clutching at straws, and they know it. As one Minister explained, ‘by putting in a default of regulatory alignment if talks falter, we’ve basically built in an escape valve, a way of ensuring we don’t have to crash out’.
At last seen her Theresa May’s strengths. Determination. Patience. Pragmatism. Resilience.
And even without that valve, had the EU wanted to derail Brexit, then the impasse over Northern Ireland gave them the perfect opportunity. Instead, they chose compromise over conflict.
Mrs May has also delivered something else. Seventeen months after taking office, she has finally introduced the country to the Prime Minister we were promised. Her deficiencies have been well documented.
But we have at last seen her strengths. Determination. Patience. Pragmatism. Resilience. They weren’t enough to counter the teen-fuelled populism of The Absolute Boy at the Election. But they could prove invaluable in the Brexit trials to come.
And those trials will come quickly. The hard-core Eurosceptics believe they have made enough concessions. The Cabinet is bracing itself for a final showdown over the Brexit ‘endstate’. EU officials are preparing for trench warfare over the upcoming trade talks.
The challenges facing Theresa May are immense. But for the first time since she became Prime Minister, it’s possible to believe she could be equal to them.