Theresa May's attempt to please everybody on Brexit will end up pleasing nobody

Downing StreetTheresa May’s Brexit ‘war cabinet’
  • Theresa May’s Brexit ‘war Cabinet’ met last night to attempt to finally agree the government’s Brexit policy.
  • Both sides of the Cabinet’s Brexit divide reportedly “thinks they got what they wanted”
  • Yet the government’s latest Brexit compromise has already been ruled out by the EU.
  • There is no breakthrough on any of the fundamental Brexit questions facing May’s government.

LONDON – There is a fable by Aesop called “The Miller, His Son, and Their Arse.” In it, a miller and his son are attempting to take their arse to the market, but are constantly hindered by people criticising them on the manner of their trip.

First, a group of women mock the miller and his son for walking the arse along the road when they could be riding it, so the miller quickly tells his son to mount the arse instead.

However, it is not long before they meet a group of old men who criticise the son for riding the arse while his father walks beside him.

“Do you see that idle lad riding while his old father has to walk?” one passerby comments. “Get down, you young scapegrace, and let the old man rest his weary limbs.”

Upon hearing this, the old man tells his son to let him ride the arse instead. However, soon they come across yet another group who again chide the miller, this time for riding alone.

“Why, you lazy old fellow,” cries a woman.

“How can you ride upon the beast, while that poor little lad there can hardly keep pace by the side of you?”

Chided by the words, the miller then asks his son to join him on the arse, but it is not long before they are criticised again, this time for putting too much weight on the arse.

“Why, you two fellows are better able to carry the poor beast than he you,” says a passerby, upon which the miller and his son, now so confused by all the criticisms, decides to tie the animal’s legs together and carry it along the road upon their shoulders on a pole.

However, so amusing is the sight of the miller and his son staggering across the bridge into town with an arse on their shoulders that the townsfolk break into hysterical laughter. The uproar frightens the animal which then breaks free of its cords and tumbles headlong into the river.

I was reminded of this fable when considering Theresa May’s latest attempt to please both sides of her party on Brexit.

After months of infighting, briefings and counter-briefings from pro-Remain and pro-Leave ministers, May yesterday finally attempted to come to an agreed position on the government’s Brexit policy.

Yet far from settling the question of what Britain’s relationship with the EU will be after Brexit, yesterday’s meeting has left us with far more questions than answers.

According to those present in the room, the Cabinet agreed that the UK should continue to follow EU rules after Brexit but that there should also be “managed divergence” from them.

So what does that mean? Well as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg puts it, May’s Cabinet “has more or less agreed that UK wants to stick to EU standards and rules but on our own terms.”

So we are to keep to EU rules, but also our own. To put it another way: we are to have our cake, but we are also to eat it.

By keeping the agreement vague, both sides of the Cabinet’s Brexit divide left the meeting feeling like their side had won. As another Cabinet source told the Financial Times: “It seems like everyone thinks they got what they wanted.”

But like the miller who desperately tried to please everyone but ended up pleasing nobody, May’s latest attempt at Brexit compromise looks set to be similarly unsuccessful.

The fundamental problem is that May’s position, that Britain should “mutually recognise” some EU regulations while diverging from others, may sound like a sensible compromise, but it has already been explicitly ruled out by the EU.

Just one day before May and her cabinet sat down at Chequers, the EU Commission released a new set of guidelines which made May’s late night Brexit compromise a complete non-starter before it had even been left the room.

What the prime minister has still failed to grasp is that Brexit, at its core, is a very simple choice between either maintaining close trading ties with the EU at the cost of some sovereignty, or cutting those ties and having more sovereignty.

As the EU has repeatedly made clear, this is the only choice that is on the table. There is no halfway point between diverging or converging with EU rules after Brexit. May either stays closely aligned to EU rules and maintains access to the single market, or diverges from them and loses access to the single market. This may sound like a difficult choice -but it is the only one that is on offer.

For good or ill, May needs to make that choice and accept the consequences. And while her consistent refusal to do so may have prevented an awkward dinner with her cabinet at Chequers yesterday, it has done nothing to resolve the fundamental conflict at the heart of her government’s Brexit policy.

This time next week the prime minister is set to make a speech setting out her government’s “road to Brexit.”

In that speech, May must finally spell out exactly which of these two options she is willing to take, or risk losing control of the Brexit process altogether.

Like the miller and his son, May can either choose to get up on the arse, or to walk alongside it. If she continues to attempt to do both at the same time, then the entire Brexit project, and her own government, risks tumbling off the road into the waters beneath her.

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