Breaking up is never easy, I know
It's been a tricky time for Theresa May lately, with her Brexit Chequers plan getting torn apart at the meeting of the European Council in Salzburg and internal divisions within her party gaining increased attention during the annual Conservative Party conference. Despite the backlash, she's standing strong in the face of adversity and seems genuine in wanting to secure a deal that delivers for Britain. But can she do that with the Chequers plan? With just under two weeks to go before the crunch EU summit on 18 October, the government are in for a frantic fortnight.
At the start of the week, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson MP drew long queues and big crowds for his speech at a conference fringe event where he set out his vision for the party. Brexit was his main focus as he called for the government to ditch the Chequers plan that led to his cabinet resignation in July. In his speech, he branded May's Brexit strategy a "fix" that can only lead to "victory" for the EU. While he didn't hold back in criticising May's plan, the truth is that he offered little in the way of detail on what his vision for Brexit would look like.
But he knew this wouldn't matter; the Brexiteers of the party don't want to hear about the realities of the negotiations or how the existing challenges can be solved, they just want out and see Boris as the man for the job. While the media reported that "daggers" had been drawn, Johnson's speech offered the foundation of an alternative policy platform for the Conservative party centred on slashing taxes for low earners, an ambitious house-building programme and bringing back stop and search. While he appeared to back May, stating that "it's not about changing prime minister", this was Boris Johnson's attempt to present himself as leader in waiting.
Just a day later, and only minutes before May began her address to conference, ex-FCO minister James Duddridge MP issued a demand that she resign. In a letter to the 1922 Committee, he said that "we need a strong leader" and "someone who believes in Brexit who can deliver what the electorate voted for". He added, "we haven't got someone that can effectively negotiate with the EU at the moment" emphasising that the "Brexit negotiations have been an absolute disaster".
Presumably attempting to disarm her detractors through self-deprecation, the prime minister danced jubilantly onto the stage to the sound of ABBA's 'Dancing Queen' and made a number of jokes at her own expense. Her much-anticipated speech centred predominantly on the future of Brexit and was largely deemed a success, particularly when compared to last year's horror show.
May spelled out her vision of a future free trade deal with the EU but notably did not refer to it as her "Chequers proposal". This is possibly an attempt to rebrand the plan in the face of opposition from across the political spectrum, the sea of "Chuck Chequers" badges at the Tory Conference and the recent polling that shows that a majority of Britons oppose the plan. Despite this, she insisted that only her blueprint would protect the British economy while keeping an open border in Ireland indicating that she has not, in fact, given up yet!
Others however, such as Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, has taken May's omission of the word "Chequers" as a sign that she may be ready to face reality and scrap the plan. However, according to sources Barnier believes that "unless there is a decisive breakthrough in the talks on the Irish issue within the next two weeks people need to acknowledge that a no-deal is likely".
What happens next?
With just under six months until Brexit day, the prime minister has to find a Brexit deal that can secure a majority in parliament while also keeping the warring factions within her own party from attempting to derail her. The DUP also need to be kept in mind with the parliamentary arithmetic looking particularly tight. Earlier this week, DUP Leader Arlene Foster warned that there can not be a Brexit deal that would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and emphasised that "our red line is blood red".
The opposition to Chequers creates a number of challenges for May. Firstly, if she can't prove to Brussels and the EU27 that her plan has support, they won't see any point in making compromises to secure an agreement. The second is that she could face a leadership contest. It is difficult right now to see a version of Brexit that can command support across parliament. With so much legislation and a vote on a final deal to happen in such a short space of time, the prime minister is likely to face further divisions along the road. Third, May has invested a significant amount of political capital in her plan, which is what made the Salzburg meeting such a personal embarrassment. However, she is still standing and many regard her as the best chance to deliver Brexit.
Even if she can keep the show on the road, there are still major roadblocks ahead. The next Summit is in two weeks' time and the Irish border challenge casts a long shadow over the negotiations. The clock is running down and May needs to make progress, and fast.
Sarah Jones, Managing director, public affairs