Are the days of Theresa May’s government limited?
The EU referendum split Britain; waking up to the dawn of Brexit revealed a country of two extremes. Remain voters mourned for their formerly outwards-looking county whilst leavers celebrated at their democratic victory. One of Cameron’s main motives for instigating this debate was an attempt to bring the country together and end the divisive debate over Europe. This was presented as a golden opportunity for democracy.
Crucially, Cameron needed to bring his party together and keep a grip on his own position. After the 2015 General Election Cameron held a majority of just 12 seats. With both the Eurosceptic and Europhile wings of the party threatening rebellion, offering the electorate a voice seemed the surest way of consolidating his power and avoiding the turmoil John Major faced in the 1990s. He thought wrong. Cameron now sits on the backbenches until his resignation from Parliament whilst Theresa May has risen to power in an abrupt leadership contest.
Yet, the media seems to have forgotten entirely about the divisions within the Conservative party and instead turn to Labour. Amidst this focus upon Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership crisis, the fraught tensions within the government are being overlooked. True, for Labour the vote acted as a match to the existing kindling of the moderate PLP’s distrust of their party leadership. But for the Tories the EU was always a time-bomb and one which has not yet been defused.
The party was fairly evenly split over the EU: 185 MPs for remain, 138 for Leave as of 22nd June. If less than 10% of either camp rebel over her Brexit negotiations, her government could fall, and she is unlikely to gain support from Labour or the SNP. Last week’s Tory conference seemed a performance of unity. Less flashy and exciting than Cameron’s ever were but bought together under May’s ambiguous promise that “Brexit means Brexit”. In reality, we still don’t have a clear idea of what leaving the EU will entail.
Many pro-remain cabinet members, alongside prominent Leave campaigner and foreign secretary Boris Johnson, have floated the possibility of the UK remaining part of the single market. This makes obvious economic sense, yet is looking increasingly unlikely. May, as Home Secretary, has come into conflict with the EU courts over immigration and now seems set upon getting full border controls regardless of the economic damage this inflicts. Her more Eurosceptic backbenchers are sure to welcome this. Tory moderates, however, are likely to veto anything putting our free trade at risk.
The fissures in the new Cabinet have already begun to open. Only this week Chancellor Phillip Hammond indicated he was hoping to retain EU trade agreement and that the country “did not vote on June 23rd to become poorer, or less secure” at odds with the PM. Meanwhile Foreign Trade Secretary Liam Fox has discussed using the residency status of foreign nationals as a ‘bargaining chip’ undermining May’s own assurances earlier this summer.
This leaves the question of the situation facing May as her honeymoon period comes to a close. The Prime Minister faces an impossible struggle to reconcile her forces and create a Brexit which both wings of the Conservative Party will back. Her first real test will likely be the debate over new grammar schools, opposed by Tory moderates. If the government U-turns this early, the floodgates for rebellion will open. Having ruled out a snap election, May will have to continue working with a small majority and could be set to face an internal battle more volatile than anything her opposition could throw at her.
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