Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: If losing Johnson or Gove is price of a Cabinet united over Brexit, it is one May should cheerfully pay

Prime Minister needs to face her critics down in make-or-break summit at Chequers on Friday, says Alban Maginness

On Friday senior members of the Conservative Cabinet will gather for a crunch summit meeting on Brexit at a 16th century manor house in Buckinghamshire, quaintly called Chequers. This has been the official country home of the Prime Minister since 1921 and it is in this genteel, rustic setting that a political drama worthy of an Agatha Christie 'whodunnit' will take place.

There may be no real blood spilt on the parquet floor of the library after lunch, but there could be casualties of a different kind. The political fallout from this meeting could be serious for the Conservative Government and for Britain.

Since the general election Theresa May has been presiding over the most bitterly and most openly divided administration since the Second World War. As Prime Minister, she has exercised little authority over her Cabinet colleagues, who regard her with contempt.

Her tenure in office is dependent on the fact that the opposing sides in the Conservative Party cannot agree on an alternative leader who could keep the Tory party notionally united, especially on Europe.

Membership of the EU has been the most contentious issue that the Tory party has ever had to deal with. Europe is the great fault line within the party. Thatcher was plagued by it, John Major was hugely wounded by it, and David Cameron was destroyed by it.

The re-emergence of the European question and the Brexit referendum victory was manna from heaven to the Conservatives' Eurosceptics.

The open warfare in the Cabinet between the soft and hard Brexiteers goes even beyond the issue of Europe, but also on other unrelated issues, such as the defence budget. On the EU itself, a junior minister has just resigned and David Davis, the Brexit Minister, was on the verge of resignation two weeks ago.

It is an appalling shambles, that we are so used to in our locally divided politics. But for politicians of the same party to behave the way they do, it is little wonder that the EU has so little faith in their Brexit proposals.

All of this bad politics has led to indecision and division over the UK Government's ultimate Brexit proposals.

In order to settle the issues once and for all and to present a united position to the EU, May has brought about this crunch meeting at Chequers. She hopes to finalise with her unruly Cabinet the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

She has been made very aware that time to resolve all these issues is running out.

At the last EU summit, which May attended, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, warned that the EU was giving the UK a "last call" to agree its position.

The most difficult issues - not least the Irish border - remain unresolved and quick progress was needed if agreement was to be reached by October.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told May: "There isn't any point in putting forward something that couldn't possibly form the basis of negotiations and that would be anything other than cherry-picking."

Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, also warned that "huge and serious divergence remains, particularly on Ireland... time is very short".

However, the signs for an agreement do not look good. For example, a "livid" Michael Gove, the Environment Minister, is reported to have physically torn up a draft document on a new customs union partnership with the EU that he received in advance of Friday's get-together.

Boris Johnson, the volatile and reckless Foreign Secretary, recently openly criticised the Prime Minister's handling of Brexit and verbally abused business leaders in the UK because of their pro-European sympathies. With colleagues like those two political trouble-makers - and indeed others - who needs enemies?

Ultimately, if May is to rescue her historical reputation, she needs to thrash out an agreed practical set of proposals that will meet with the EU's concerns, and then negotiate on that basis a workable deal with Brussels.

If that means losing Johnson or Gove (or others), then that's the way it has to be.

And, if they resign from the Cabinet, they can then choose to bring down their own Conservative Government or not. In those circumstances, the responsibility will be on their shoulders, not May's.

May simply cannot continue as a lame duck Prime Minister in circumstances where the UK's national interests are held prisoner to the internal civil war being waged in the Conservative Party.

The stakes are too high - especially for us here in Ireland.

Chequers will be a crunch meeting and, on this occasion, May should act with authority and face the hard Brexiteers down - blood on the carpet in the study notwithstanding.

And the world will then know 'whodunnit'.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph