Brian Monteith: Theresa May is down but not out - if she drops her Chequers plan

Prime Minister Theresa May.  Pic: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
Prime Minister Theresa May. Pic: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
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Theresa May has put herself in an invidious position, but she can still recover the situation.

The question is does she have the wherewithal to do it? If recent experience is anything to go by I have to conclude she will yet again let her best opportunities pass her by.

The prime minister is now playing a patriotic card, wrapping herself up in the union flag and banging the drum about how the country has been insulted and made fun of by her erstwhile continental friends from across the water – when all along she has shown nothing but the utmost respect for the EU negotiating team, and the leaders of the EU and EU member countries.

She is receiving a good deal of sympathy as a result – for it is blatantly obvious the gratuitous behaviour of Donald Tusk and President Emmanuel Macron are only two examples of an especially condescending and arrogant cabal. With Angela Merkel taking an unusually low profile the photographed behaviour of these dark suited men towards the isolated May in her red jacket was verging on the chauvinistic, if not misogynistic.

The patriotic card is however an all to obvious ruse to satisfy domestic political concerns rather than change the nature of the negotiation with the EU. It is an attempt to present the Prime Minister as a strong, wronged, woman – striking three chords of sympathy on the British people’s psyche. Yet we know that the prime minister – for all her brave words – has been supine rather than strong due to her many unnecessary compromises. She has wronged her own supporters only to become isolated, as she has now been hung out to dry

The British prime minister was warned by members of her party at all levels that her Chequers Plan would not be acceptable to the EU leaders and that it would only encourage them to hold out for further demands.

These warnings came from the cabinet members who had resigned after being intentionally and cruelly humiliated by the imposition of her unnecessary and unpopular negotiation position that had been developed secretly in parallel to the government’s official working papers. There were existing cabinet members who also had grave doubts about the Chequers Plan – and there were many Conservative MPs from both the Europhile-Remain and Eurosceptic-Leave wings of the backbenches who voiced there public opposition.

An attempt by Conservative Party officials to win round constituency members and office-bearers received a brusque and robust retort. And we know from polling of the top 44 Conservative marginal seats that was published before she went to Salzburg that the public dislike her Chequers Plan enough to lose her party every single one of those seats.

There was in fact no significant constituency of supporters of the Chequers Plan other than the prime minister’s retinue and the EU used this weakness to diminish her in public.

Yet out of her vainglorious defeat there is still an opportunity to recover, save face and come out as the winner. First it requires her to publicly admit that the well-meant Chequers Plan is now a sorry episode in the past and that an alternative will be found. It was a mistake to say there was no alternative to Chequers when there plainly was – for lies will be found out, and it was.

We know there is an alternative because the original papers of the former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, that met the conditions of the prime minister’s own speeches at Lancaster House, in Florence and at Mansion House and are available in the public domain.

It was also a mistake to by the Prime Minister to invest so much of her reputation in Chequers, for with its rejection she has been badly wounded. She must in future broaden her support across her party, but more importantly across the broader Leave movement and those Leavers who are of other parties or none.

Fortunately for the Prime Minister the Institute of Economic Affairs will today publish a new high-level proposal that could become the basis for a unifying negotiating position. Called “Plan A+” it will seek to pull together the central tenets of having a new trading relationship with the EU while taking back control of the country’s laws, taxes and borders.

It will provide answers to the needless calls for a further referendum on any deal, for so long as the UK Government delivers on what it said it would do in its manifesto – and was backed in that respect by Labour too, namely leaving the EU’s single market and Customs Union – then it has the legal and moral mandate to deliver the deal it thinks best, or no deal if that is better than anything on offer.

Having a plan will also kill the ridiculous idea that she should seek to call a snap election. Parliament would have to agree to call an election but why would there be a majority for that when she is such a poor campaigner and does not have a credible negotiating plan to campaign on?

Fortunately the prime minister can take solace and gain hope in the fact that the Labour opposition cannot decide what course to take regarding Brexit. Corbyn is in deep trouble over the idea of a second referendum, or indeed any attempt to block Brexit. A weekend poll of its top 25 constituencies showed that such is the public discontent with its constant dodging from one position to another – so long as its newly adopted line might force a general election – could lose it nineteen seats in a general election. Some 58 per cent of voters in those Labour marginals just want Brexit to be delivered while only 22 per cent support a second referendum.

What potential Labour voters think is far more important than the views of Labour Party members, even more so in the seats the party must retain and those it must win.

With a party conference to convince that she deserves another chance of delivering a meaningful Brexit that respects both what her party campaigned in the elections for – and what the vast majority of the people voted for across various parties – Theresa May first must “chuck Chequers”. If she remains in denial and cannot bring herself to do it then the party can only conclude she is not made of the right stuff for the job in hand.