Brexit deal: Meetings aren't a Plan B

Theresa May Image copyright Getty Images

Meetings, on their own, are not a Plan B. Conversations, are not by themselves, compromises.

To get any deal done where there are such clashing views all around, it requires give and take. It feels like a political lifetime since there has been a fundamental dispute in the cabinet, in the Tory party and across Parliament. Theresa May has stubbornly, although understandably, tried to plot a middle course.

But that has failed so spectacularly at this stage. Ultimately she may well be left with the same dilemma of which way to tack.

It's clear, wide open, in public, that the cabinet is at odds with each other. Just listen to David Gauke and Liam Fox on whether a customs union could be a compromise for example.

The answer for her is not suddenly going to emerge from a unified tier of her top team. There are perhaps five or six of the cabinet who would be happy to see that kind of relationship as a way to bring Labour on board.

But there is a group of around the same size who would rather see what they describe as a "managed no deal".

You may well wonder if that isn't a contradiction in terms.

But the principle would be that the UK would pay the divorce bill already agreed and over a two-year period construct a series of side deals on specific issues, rather than try to come up with a whole new comprehensive plan.

There are already intense arguments about whether that's remotely realistic. But the overall point is that the prime minister cannot just therefore look to her top colleagues for an immediate solution.

Before she decides which way to tack, or how far to budge, she may need to ask herself if the talks she wants to hold with other political parties are occasions when she is really open to ideas - or just ways of managing the political situation.

One cabinet minister involved in the talks suggested that many MPs still needed to understand how the agreement they have reached with the EU worked. And that as "project reality" dawned, there could still be a way through of salvaging Mrs May's deal in something like its current form.

And certainly there wasn't much in the PM's lectern statement to suggest she is suddenly ready to move very much. One former minister described it as "still flicking the V at the 48% - she's deluded, she never changes her mind and cannot conceive that others might".

If all that the prime minister intends to do is massage a few egos with these talks, it seems unlikely that she'll find a quick route to success. And Labour may well stay outside the process.

Many members of the public might be furious that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn won't play nice during a time of crisis. He's always said he believes in dialogue, but when it really matters, he says no. But inside the Labour movement there are others who might accuse of him of helping to make Brexit happen if he takes part. Like so many facets of this process, it's not a straightforward political calculation.

But across Parliament, for a very long time now, even some MPs who were on the prime minister's side to start with have been intensely frustrated that she hasn't listened. It will take a lot more than a cup of tea in Downing Street to bring her many critics on board.

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