Leader comment: May wins first round in Battle of Brexit

Theresa May used to insist she would lead a 'strong and stable' government, a mantra repeated so often that it began to sound like she was over-compensating.

Theresa May is showing signs of being a political survivor (Picture: AFP/Getty)

Last year’s general election – called in the expectation of increasing the Conservatives’ Commons majority – left her at the head of a decidedly weak and wobbly minority Government, propped up by the DUP.

But somehow, she has managed to stagger on and last week finally gained the strength to nail her colours to the mast over Brexit by coming up with a proposed EU divorce deal at the soft end of the spectrum.

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In doing so, she defied some of her party’s supposed “big beasts”. David Davis’s resignation from the Cabinet was followed by Boris Johnson’s and a number of other junior figures have also quit their posts in protest.

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But May appears to have won the first of the many battles to come. Despite all the talk this week of a leadership bid, the challenge from the hard Brexiteers has noticeably lost momentum.

So, perhaps, the Prime Minister is a survivor after all and commentators have under-estimated her abilities as a political streetfighter. Her continued presence in Number 10 may also be a sign that the Brexiteers who remain in Cabinet have realised the very real risks to the UK economy of failing to agree a deal with the EU that maintains our ability to trade freely with the world’s most valuable single market.

May’s opening position in the talks with the EU suggests that she will opt to remain in the single market, rather than leave with no deal, in the event that the EU refuses to agree to what would be a significant change to the way it currently deals with non-EU states.

But May will hope to persuade the EU that maintaining good relations with the UK is more important than sticking to its rules, for both economic and geopolitical reasons. With Donald Trump starting trade wars and Vladimir Putin’s Russia trying to undermine liberal democracy, many European politicians may agree with her.

However, as her mind shifts to a new diplomatic offensive on the EU, May will need to keep an eye on the home front. The hard Brexiteers may be bruised but, make no mistake, they have not been routed and are gathering their forces, while the opposition parties will look for any weaknesses to exploit. After two years of phoney war, a new Battle of Britain has well and truly begun.