UK Politics

Conservatives: Brexit trouble ahead for May in 2017?

Theresa May leaves EU summit Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Theresa May's year ahead is likely to be dominated by the process of the UK leaving the EU

It's not hard to identify the issue that is likely to dominate 2017 for Theresa May and her Conservative government: in the absence of a bolt from the blue it will be Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit.

The prime minister's announcement at her party conference that the government would trigger Article 50 by the end of March, setting in motion the process of leaving the EU, ensured it would remain at the top of the agenda.

Mrs May has said she will set out more of the government's Brexit plans in a speech to be made in the new year.

We don't know how much detail she will give, but her audience will be expecting something beyond the gnomic utterances that "Brexit means Brexit" and that she wants a "red, white and blue Brexit".

MPs will get some sort of vote before Article 50 is triggered but the exact process won't be known until after the Supreme Court issues its judgement on whether Parliament must have a formal constitutional role.

MPs won't block Article 50 but that doesn't mean the government will have an easy ride - either in March, or further ahead.

Perhaps nobody knows this better than the Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Awkward squad

He has worked the European beat before, as a whip during the passage through Parliament of the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s.

Then as now, a Conservative government with a small majority was faced with seeking Parliamentary approval for a controversial and difficult measure around Britain's relationship with the European Union.

That though, is where the similarity ends. While with Maastricht it was the Eurosceptics that were causing merry Hell, now it is likely to be diehard Remainers who will man any "awkward squad".

Image caption Will the Three Brexiteers all still be in cabinet by the end of 2017?

Of the "Three Brexiteers" at the top of government, Mr Davis has had the best write-ups so far for his command of the task at hand. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox have not slipped into their new roles so easily.

Theresa May's relationship with Mr Johnson will be interesting to watch throughout 2017.

She has seen fit to mock him and very publicly slap him down. It has been suggested that he is not happy about continuously being the butt of jokes, and the two of them are hardly natural bedfellows.

Perhaps that's why bookmakers make Liam Fox and him the favourites to be the first minister to leave the Cabinet.

Although Brexit will dominate, Theresa May has a broader agenda.

Grammar row

In education, for example, the forced "academisation" of all schools is out and grammars are back in. She has also promised to develop a new industrial strategy to create "an economy that works for everyone".

Again, her small majority in Parliament could put her at the mercy of awkward backbenchers. Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan leads a group of MPs who could be prepared to block grammar schools.

And some of the more free market-oriented Conservatives won't like policies that look like government meddling in business.

There is one way that the prime minister could take arms against a sea of troubles.

Despite saying she will stick to the planned 2020 date, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act allows for an early vote if two thirds of MPs back an early general election.

Jeremy Corbyn says that Labour would support such a move so the numbers would be there.

If Mrs May felt she was being stymied in her efforts to negotiate the best Brexit deal for Britain, she could change her mind and let the country issue its verdict.

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