Benjy Goodwin explains the inexplicable: the continued presence of Theresa May in Number 10.
So the time has come: the Brexit “Endgame”, in the words of Theresa May, has begun. The UK and the EU completed a draft withdrawal agreement on Tuesday, largely following the path agreed at Chequers in July – effectively keeping the whole of the UK inside the EU’s customs and regulatory sphere for the transition, while a future trading arrangement and answer to the Irish border question are developed.
There are many parallels between Chequers and the marathon 5-hour Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. May entered both with a plan to put to the cabinet, largely developed apart from them. She faced down hostile cabinet ministers opposed to many provisions of the plan and emerged triumphant, declaring that she had won the support of cabinet for her proposals. And then, not long after, two high-profile cabinet ministers who had supported the plan resigned. Suddenly, May was in full-scale crisis all over again.
People are getting very over-excited – especially Tory MPs whose anonymous quotes to journalists range from bizarre to concerning. One minister told Sky’s Tom Larkin: “this is a phantasmagorical goat fuck of the worst kind”, while an ERG source is reported as saying “People will die in a ditch on this one, with bodies and limbs strewn across the field of battle.” Just days after the armistice centenary, the latter seemed particularly insensitive. Perhaps they should have read my piece from a few weeks ago…
The big question at the moment is whether or not this crisis is different from all the others. May is perhaps the most crisis-prone PM in living memory. Yet every time, amazingly, she emerges relatively unscathed. However, this time does feel a bit different: the stakes are higher, and we are currently in the midst of a large-scale plot to depose May. Jacob Rees-Mogg, alongside other members of the ERG, has sent his letter of no confidence to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee. To recap, if 48 Tory MPs send such a letter to Brady, he must call a vote of confidence in May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. If she wins, she is safe for a year. If she loses, she must fight a leadership election and, as with Margaret Thatcher, this would probably lead to her resignation. It is certainly “on”. We could be about to see a Johnson leadership bid, and further major resignations could spell the end for May.
But I am sticking to my guns here. I have always said that I think the most likely option is that May gets a deal and it passes through parliament. I have also long maintained that May would win any pre-Brexit confidence vote. My reasons for believing this is that too many of those involved have too much to lose if any of these don’t happen. The European Union and the United Kingdom would both be seriously hurt by the chaos of a No-Deal Brexit and the economic dislocation that would ensue. That is why there was always going to be a deal. Common sense meant that it was always going to look something like this.
Why do I think Theresa May will win any confidence vote amongst Tory MPs? The number of letters, at the time of writing, has not yet reached the 48 needed to trigger such a vote, but it’s perfectly possible for that to happen any minute now. The fact is, I don’t think there are 160 Tory MPs who would be willing to launch a leadership contest at such a crucial time for our country. The chaos it would cause would be unprecedented, especially when you take into account that the party is in civil war, and there is no candidate with wide enough support to replace her. Remainer Tory MPs would not want to risk a Rees-Mogg or Johnson premiership, and more moderate Brexiteers will be fearful of rocking the boat when their dream is so close to becoming a reality. Indeed, as Alan Duncan tweeted, “No constructive purpose is served by any Conservative MP turning against [May] … Don’t kid yourself anyone could do better.”
So, on to passing the deal. It is not the easiest task to work out how Theresa May finds a majority for her deal. For Brexiteers, it is unattractive as it keeps us (if temporarily) subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and we will be accepting EU rules with no say over them. For Remainers, it is unattractive as it is Brexit. For the Northern Irish and for Unionists in general, it is worrying for it carries the risk of creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea and creating distance between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But it has something to offer to the crucial groups in parliament. Brexiteers ought to try to follow the sound logic of Michael Gove: Brexit must be secured at any cost. It may not the be the Brexit you want, but once you’re legally out of the EU, you’re out – and at that point, you can tweak your relationship with the EU as you wish. Why rock the boat now and risk a second referendum? For those who believe we should leave, but voted Remain, it is a soft Brexit, which keeps us economically aligned with the EU.
My overall point is this: there is neither a majority of Tory MPs who want Theresa May to be in Number 10 nor a majority of MPs who like the Withdrawal Agreement. But it is in the interest of enough MPs for the deal to pass, for the reasons I have set out above. It is also in the interest of Tory MP’s not to enter into a leadership contest that might lead to the collapse of their government.
I have been wrong before, many, many times. And I am increasingly nervous about my predictions. Even in the course of writing this article, I have had to update parts of it multiple times as developments unfolded. Maybe I give them far more credit than they deserve, but I just cannot see how enough Tory MPs and enough MPs in general can be so stupid as to vote against their own interests. May will survive, and so will the deal – I think.