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Analysis

What game, if any, is Theresa May playing?

by Hugo Dixon | 09.10.2017

Theresa May’s statement that the “ball is in your court” is either a sign of paralysis or the prime minister is trying to look tough with hardliner Brexiters so she can sack Boris Johnson.

May’s advisers know that we’ll have to make more concessions before the EU is willing to start talks on the transitional deal she desperately needs to prevent the economy falling off a cliff in 17 months. The eight u-turns she made in her Florence speech were not enough. She needs to make further climb-downs: to offer more money as part of our divorce and give the European Court of Justice a bigger role in securing EU citizens’ rights.

So unless the prime minister is not listening to her officials, she knew the EU wouldn’t hit the ball back to her. And, sure enough, even before she pronounced the words in the House of Commons, the EU Commission’s chief spokesperson had said: “The ball is entirely in the UK’s court.”

So what is May up to?

The most straightforward explanation is that she’s paralysed. Perhaps she could have got away with more flipflops if she’d had a good Tory party conference. Instead, Johnson parked his tanks on her lawn and her own speech was a disaster. If she makes any more concessions, the hard Brexiters in the Tory party will have her guts for garters.

But there’s also another explanation: that the prime minister is plotting to demote Johnson, as the Sunday Times reported. If so, it would be foolish to offer more concessions to the EU now, as her hardliners would go ape-shit. Far better to remove the foreign secretary first and then, after the Tory party had settled down, hit the ball back into the EU’s court.

One reason for taking this explanation seriously is that Johnson’s allies are panicking. That’s why they are briefing like mad against Philip Hammond, saying that the chancellor is “miserable” and he’s the one who should be sacked.

Almost the entire cabinet would support May if she demoted or fired Johnson. Even David Davis told the prime minister to get rid of the foreign secretary after his Telegraph column last month, according to the Mail on Sunday.

But it’s also clear that axing Johnson would be risky. Though the foreign secretary doesn’t have much support in Parliament, many Tory party members still adore him. From the back benches, Johnson could unleash the dogs of war. So our typically indecisive premier could yet shrink from pulling the trigger.

Meanwhile, the ball is stuck in our court, the Article 50 timebomb is ticking, and business is getting more and more worried. What a way to run a country.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe