Brian Monteith: Theresa May will survive conference but Chequers will not

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PM must find a replacement for this zombie policy or the Cabinet will force one upon her, writes Brian Monteith.

The Prime Minister should survive the Conservative Party conference this week but her policy to offer a limited type of Brexit – which can only lead to further compromises once negotiations go down to the wire – is set for widespread rejection.

Brexiters at the Leave Means Leave Rally at the National Conference Centre in Solihull. Picture: PA

Brexiters at the Leave Means Leave Rally at the National Conference Centre in Solihull. Picture: PA

Gone are the days when a Conservative conference might allow a vote on a government policy or accept motions to be submitted from constituency associations to act as a release for unrest among party members. Few in the past under Margaret Thatcher realised how fortunate they were to be able to submit an impromptu speaker’s slip and be called to say their piece – and without any vetting or manipulation of what you might say.

In this controlled world of media manipulation we should not look to the conference floor or the reception given to the Prime Minister’s keynote speech to take the temperature of the Tory party (unless it is an especially rude one). More important is to attend the many fringe meetings, both inside the conference security zone and outside in the various hotels and some unlikely meeting spaces.

Yesterday I composed a list and found that of those discussing some aspect of Brexit there were 25 official fringe activities in the security zone and 17 unofficial happenings outside it – including a full-blown alternative conference lasting a day. The two main differences between the locations are that being inside the security zone comes at a cost, while the latter events, not requiring a conference pass, are open to the public as well as party members.

The flavour of the fringe programme reveals a strong desire to challenge the Chequers plan, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, Andrea Jenkyns and Priti Patel being ubiquitous across the four days of debates, panels and interviews – while Boris Johnson has his own speech to make and activists to glad-hand.

The few outspoken Remainers – Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and Andrea Sandbach – are also appearing regularly, but are not especially disposed to Chequers either. Instead some, such as Soubry, will be arguing for a second referendum and be further marginalised as a result. Defending Chequers will be left to the Prime Minister and her ministers, but most of the latter will prefer to be seen talking about their briefs rather than be too forcefully identified with the political equivalent of a dead policy walking.

For at this conference Chequers is a zombie policy; it has been rejected by the EU, rejected by members that the party discreetly canvassed, rejected by a Global Britain poll of 44 top Conservative marginals and came only fourth equal in a range of options surveyed by Huffington Post – behind a Canada-style free trade deal (22%), no deal (19%), Remain (16%) and then Chequers and a Norway-style deal both polling only 11%.

Only May clings to Chequers with any seriousness and is now reduced to making unconvincing and simply outrageous claims on its behalf.

Yesterday at a members-only meeting where some questions were for once allowed, she rebuffed those that said Chequers was dead, saying “the EU has not absolutely rejected Chequers, they have said there is much that they agree with”. She makes my point well; as an endgame Chequers is useless for the EU sees it as the starting point for further concessions, not least continuing with free movement of EU migrants. It will also press for a tightening of the role of the European Courts of Justice in overseeing the proposed common rule book and enforcing the customs arrangement that will be the EU’s customs union in all but name. This is why it is dead – it will mean a bad deal and May has said, and says she still holds to her dictum, “No deal is better than a bad deal”.

More grotesquely May has gone on record saying Chequers is better than a Canada-style trade deal that is growing in popularity, when any objective comparison shows this to be a absurd.

Chequers means taking EU laws with no say, it means being tied to the single market and customs union, it means no likelihood of our own trade deals, a £40 billion payment without an invoice – and it ultimately must mean continuing with free movement of people from the EU.

By contrast a Canada-style deal would mean deciding our own laws, being free from the single market and customs union restrictions but having tariff-free access to them, being able to establish our own trade deals, the £40bn payment becomes conditional on agreeing the EU deal – and having an immigration policy that treats all migrants equally, irrespective of race, colour, religion or origin.

To justify the need for Chequers, May argues that “Canada-plus” or “super-Canada” would split Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, but the EU has undermined that argument by accepting the possibility of technical solutions to the border issues. The danger for Northern Ireland being thrown under the bus remains not from the weaponising of the border issue by the EU and its Irish Government sock puppet, but from May herself. Remember, it was the PM who last year contrived to make an offer on the Irish backstop to the EU without consulting her supposed partners in the DUP.

Each day the conference offers a big-ticket rally likely to provide news headlines that will take control of the agenda away from the Downing Street advisers, with many other smaller events where the troops on the ground will be encouraged to protest in a quiet but decisive way. And they will.

It would be surprising if May had anything other than a warm reception for her main speech – it can hardly be as embarrassing as last year’s and she will play “the woman scorned” card wrapped in a Union Flag for all its maximum potential. Nevertheless, when the flag-waving subsides and the party loyalists return home, the MPs will have to pick up the debris.

To all intents and purposes Chequers is dead. When the Cabinet next meets on 9 October, May must have a new plan and a route map towards achieving it – or the Cabinet will force one upon her and trample her underfoot to deliver it.