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Theresa May told to stop facing in all directions on future EU trade deal

Mrs May was warned she must choose between warring factions in her cabinet. Credit: PA

First, the good news for David Davis and Theresa May.

Their EU interlocutors liked the positive tone of what the Brexit secretary had to say about our future relationship with the EU - especially his rejection of a bonfire of the regulations to create an uber-competitive Mad-Max-Style dystopia in the UK, and his insistence that this country wants a level playing field for commerce with the EU.

Less good news, but unsurprising, is the rest of the EU still does not have a clue what institutional arrangement Mr Davis and Mrs May have in mind to create that level playing field - which would, if it exists, allow the UK to have tariff-free and frictionless access to the EU single market.

Mr Davis avoided musing about politically incendiary issues such as who would actually decide whether the playing field is level. In the words of a Brexiteering ultra, Davis gave the Europeans “omni-directional gush”.

And it is precisely because the 62 Brexit true-believing Tory MPs in the European Research Group don’t want to be “hosed with the same pish”, that they wrote to the PM on Friday reminding her of their Brexit red lines - ahead of the Cabinet lock-in on Thursday that is supposed to finally determine what Mrs May really really wants from the EU.

The Government was accused of offering 'omni-directional gush' to Europe. Credit: PA

What the ERG insists she must not do is in any way impair the UK’s “ability to change British laws and rules once we leave”.

Now, that is consistent with the letter of what Davis said, and is inconsistent with what most of the cabinet believe will be required to secure advantageous access to the EU’s single market.

Which means May faces a stark choice on Thursday.

She can face down the ERG and it’s cabinet supporters, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

She can go with their maximalist demands for UK commercial autonomy and risk negotiating a deal that Parliament would probably reject.

Or she can continue to fudge and mudge - and risk the rest of the EU deciding there is no basis for serious talks.

It is the first moment since she became PM that there probably is no compromise available that would shield her from serious grief.

If the prime ministerial bum isn’t squeaking, perhaps it never will.