Mark Stuart: Tories must become the pragmatic party of Brexit as they tackle EU Rubik’s Cube

David Davis and Theresa May with Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker at their breakfast brunch.
David Davis and Theresa May with Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker at their breakfast brunch.
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THE United Kingdom and the European Union served up a large slice of Euro Fudge at their joint breakfast press conference after reaching a Brexit agreement that enables trade talks to begin.

However, the central question is whether the Eurosceptics in Theresa May’s own party will be willing to swallow this interim deal, or whether it will prove indigestible.

The early signs for the Government were good, with both Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland Secretary and Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, giving their backing.

It was also significant to see the other leading ‘Leavers’ in Cabinet like Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, rallying behind the Prime Minister and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary.

But while Cabinet backing is relatively secure, a real question mark remains over whether the hard-line sceptics on the Tory backbenches will buy into the deal.

Lifelong sceptics like Peter Bone, the maverick MP for Kettering, will find the divorce bill – potentially £39bn – too high to stomach. And waiting in the leadership wings is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who will be incandescent that the remit of the European Court of Justice will still apply for many years to come.

However, the Prime Minister will be incredibly relieved that she now has an interim deal – some measure of credit is now due to Theresa May for showing dogged determination in carving out an outline deal which she believes is in the national interest.

What she must not do, however, is to repeat the mistake of John Major after he signed the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. Having secured opt-outs from the single currency and the Social Chapter, Major declared triumphantly that the agreement was ‘game, set and match’ for Britain. He was greeted with rapture on the Tory benches, and only seven Conservative MPs voted against the Treaty. Less than a year later, the Tories were mired in bitter splits when it came to ratifying the detail in the House of Commons.

Major failed to listen to the advice of his Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who felt that Maastricht was an imperfect but necessary process and it was better for Britain to sign up to it rather than walk away. And that is precisely the line which Theresa May needs to take.

Much work will now have to be done behind-the-scenes to convince the Prime Minister’s most Eurosceptic backbenchers that the deal is something they can live with. Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith, now chief whip, will play a central role in keeping the Conservative Party together.

One helpful piece of advice for Smith is to court senior Eurosceptics like Peter Lilley, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith, who are actually far more pragmatic on this issue that their public persona might suggest. If these heavyweights can be brought on board, then perhaps Theresa May’s position will be secure for now.

However, this deal also has to satisfy Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is required if the Government is to carry on with a functioning majority at Westminster.

Earlier this week, the DUP showed just how powerful it is in these talks, insisting on a rewording of the outline deal on the Irish border issue. Unfortunately for Theresa May, the DUP almost pride themselves in being the party that always says ‘No’, suspecting betrayal and surrender at every turn.

Added into this almost impossible-to-solve Rubik’s Cube is the attitude of the European Commission, headed by Jean-Claude Juncker. Relations between Juncker and May soured during the 2017 General Election when a German newspaper leaked details of a private discussion over dinner at Downing Street. The Prime Minister did not help the situation by using bellicose language, firing up Eurosceptics in her own Party.

Fortunately, the relationship has been repaired. Moreover, up until now, the European Commission has played a blinder in the sense that they have not sought to humiliate the British Government. Such diplomatic niceties from the Commission are essential if British public opinion is to buy into this deal, notably over the one issue that really grates with voters – the aforementioned divorce bill.

But all thoughts now turn to the Conservative Party to see whether or not it can swallow this deal. History suggests that periodically the Tory Party has torn itself apart, as over the issue of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, over free trade versus protectionism in the early 1900s and over Maastricht in the 1990s. What followed in each of these spasms was that ideology won over pragmatism, and the party found itself out of power for a generation.

The Conservative Party needs to give such madness a miss. It needs to show that it is the pragmatic party, prepared to take the big decisions of our times in the broader national interest.

And if a high-minded appeal to Tory pragmatism does not work, then surely the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn sitting in No 10 Downing Street will prove sufficient incentive to bring all but the most hard-nosed Eurosceptics back into line.

Mark Stuart is a political academic from York who has written biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.