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Wednesday 1 May 2019

How appropriate that on May day, the prime minister would finally show her hand since negotiations towards an even more ruinous withdrawal agreement with Labour began last month.

Theresa May has been keeping a low profile in the run-up to tomorrow’s local elections, avoiding use of the word Brexit as the Tories face an absolute killing at the polls. The Telegraph reveal Mrs May has imposed a media blackout after polling showed the party’s rating plummets when Brexit is on the agenda, as it almost always is.

But that’s the side-story. The Telegraph and the Mail have the inside track on yesterday’s cabinet meeting, revealing plans to go all in with Labour’s foolish Customs Union position in order to get a deal over the line, thereby avoiding another drubbing at the European elections on May 23rd. The ruin a betrayal such a deal would represent doesn’t seem to have been much cause for consideration.

Chief whip Julian Smith was brought in to lay out a narrow range of options, unsurprisingly, No Deal was not among them.

“It’s a customs union or a second referendum, and we are not having a second referendum,” Smith told ministers.

“It was made clear that the cabinet has rejected a second referendum or a general election, Parliament has rejected no deal and the current deal, which doesn’t leave a lot of options left,” said one cabinet source.

Andrea Leadsom is reported to have said she and other Brexiteers in the room are not happy with the way the prime minister is handling the situation. But they don’t appear to be doing much to open up the range of options and drive a different agenda, and it’s not as if they don’t have ample opportunity.

Smith headed off any discussion around the daft idea of introducing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill as a substitute for the meaningful vote, citing the 34 Tory Brexiteers and the DUP who all voted against it at the last time of asking. Why would they change their position when nothing, apart from the Conservatives’ tumbling popularity – a boon to the Brexit cause – has changed since the third meaningful vote failed in March.

Smith’s intervention would have reminded ministers that a shift towards a customs union would create only more Tory “rebels” at the dubious benefit of Labour votes, probably not enough. The shift would have to be monumental causing much more damage to the Conservatives than a freak European election.

“If the government want a deal it is the government that will have to shift their position,” a Labour source told the Telegraph, amid rumours stretching credibility that cross-party negotiations are going well.

At the meeting, Michael Gove called for a deal permitting free trade deals under a Conservative government – which remaining in the Customs Union would render impossible – and CU membership under a Labour administration, probably the most unhelpful thing anyone has said around the cabinet table under May’s premiership. We need a withdrawal agreement that obliges the government, Labour or Tory, to get out into the wider world and strike trade deals.

However, it looks as if Jeremy Corbyn is on a parallel trajectory to Mrs May. As predicted, at yesterday’s crunch meeting of the national executive committee, the second referendum question was fudged in order to limit damage at the European elections and get the withdrawal farce over with.

A public vote will be held only if Labour “can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election.”

Corbyn and co. are also in for a miserable European election. A pliant Conservative party is likely to offer those sought after “changes”, namely the Customs Union.

Thus far, this blog has hypothesized that Corbyn simply wishes to stall until a general election is called, but Brexit is causing him plenty of headaches, his policy of ambiguity cannot go on forever. He will be tempted to make a deal.