JANE MERRICK writes about an immovable political object facing irresistible forces.
It was one of the quickest turnarounds in British political history. Just five days after trying to topple the prime minister in a confidence vote, the ring-leaders of the coup declared their support for Theresa May in any fresh bid to unseat her. Even the morning after that confidence vote last week, when 117 Conservative MPs went against their prime minister versus 200 who supported her, Jacob Rees-Mogg urged May to go and tender her resignation to the Queen. Yet on Monday, within hours of Jeremy Corbyn trying to mount a similar challenge, Rees-Mogg and his ally Steve Baker promised to respect the ‘democratic result’ of the Tory confidence vote. Rees-Mogg told ConservativeHome: ‘I’m not interested in being an irreconcilable… the leadership question is settled.’
This pledge changes completely the dynamic of the House of Commons just 100 days before the UK is due to leave the EU. It means that May can head into the Christmas break not only having seen off a rebellion by her own MPs but with the threat of an opposition challenge receding, given it would have needed some Conservative support for it to pass.
None of this, however, should permit May to toast her own premiership with an extra large Baileys by the Christmas tree. It is still the case that the prime minister’s Brexit deal remains unratified by parliament. She may retain the confidence of her party but she does not have the confidence in her own Brexit plan to put it to the Commons. Yet she refuses to change it in order to secure parliamentary approval. The PM also won’t to listen to anyone offering alternative plans that might see a consensus reached. She has become the great immovable force in British politics, undefeated and yet utterly intransigent.
Last week, in the wake of her uneasy victory among Tory MPs – when a third of them voted against her – May went to Brussels to seek reassurances on the Northern Ireland backstop in the hope of quelling Brexiteer opposition.
There were soothing words from European Council president Donald Tusk, who said the prime minister should be reassured that the backstop would not last forever, but the EU could offer nothing new that was legally binding. The Withdrawal Agreement struck between Brussels and the UK in November would not be changed.
However, at the end of the first day of the summit, as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker went off script – laying into the UK government’s ‘nebulous’ and ‘imprecise’ negotiating strategy – May got an opportunity for what some in No.10 hoped might be her ‘handbag’ moment, redolent of Margaret Thatcher facing down Brussels to secure the UK’s rebate from the EU.
The following morning, in scenes filmed by a passing television camera, she confronted Juncker in the Council building demanding to know why he had called her ‘nebulous’. He denied it, later insisting he had described the government’s approach that way, rather than May personally – and also claimed that once he had explained himself properly ‘she was kissing me’.
This somewhat unorthodox diplomatic approach from Juncker was not confined to the prime minister. Footage from the same summit emerged of the Commission president greeting a female colleague by fluffing the back of her hair. The effect of this sleazy behaviour from Juncker – coupled with May’s defiant ‘handbagging’ – on Conservative Brexiteers back home may be fascinating to proponents of Nudge Theory. While May did not secure any legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement to satisfy Rees-Mogg and his allies, the atmospherics from the summit almost certainly played into their chivalrous worldview.
More blatantly, while many Conservative MPs were keen last week to get rid of May from Downing Street, they are even keener to prevent Corbyn from getting anywhere near it. While the Labour leader is an instinctive eurosceptic, the Conservative party views him as a tax-raising socialist who would damage the British economy.
The natural progression from a confidence vote in the Commons leads very quickly to a general election and the very real possibility of the Labour leader becoming prime minister.
With Brussels refusing to give way and offer legally binding concessions, cabinet ministers and Tory MPs spent the weekend floating alternative ideas to May’s Brexit plan which might break through the Commons stalemate. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, urged the prime minister to ‘try something different’ because Brexit was ‘in danger of getting stuck’.
She called for a ‘practical, sensible and healing approach’ to try to reach consensus among MPs of all parties on a rejigged Brexit deal that would prevent the UK crashing out of the EU on March 29. This would remove the need for May relying on support of Brexiteers and the DUP, who are demanding the Northern Ireland backstop is watered down, or even stripped from the Withdrawal Agreement completely, and instead coalesce around softer Brexit and Remain-supporting Tories, as well as Labour and other opposition MPs, potentially backing a Norway Plus arrangement. This idea has gained ground among ‘moderate’ Conservative MPs inside the cabinet and out, as a way of fending off a no-deal scenario.
A group of senior soft Brexit cabinet ministers, including Rudd, the chancellor Philip Hammond, education secretary Damian Hinds, justice secretary David Gauke and business secretary Greg Clark, are pushing for an ‘indicative vote’ in the Commons to try to reach consensus on what sort of plan would win a parliamentary majority.
This type of vote would not be legally binding, but would allow MPs to vote freely – without having to adhere to a three-line whip along party lines – on a series of motions. In 2003, the Blair government allowed indicative votes on reform of the House of Lords, but in the event the Commons could not agree on any of the options put forward, and it was several years before Lords reform was debated again.
This time, the government does not have the luxury of time. There are concerns that a similar no-option outcome would happen with indicative votes on Brexit, leading to a deepening of the stalemate and the risk of wasting more time.
However, proponents argue that, in the absence of support for the deal currently on the table, it is better than nothing – or, more pertinently, better than no-deal.
Amid all this discussion comes reports that some of May’s closest aides have been preparing for a second referendum if her deal does not make it through the Commons. A Sky News poll revealed that 53% of people would be in favour of a People’s Vote. The prime minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, publicly denied on Twitter that he ‘wanted’ a second referendum – but that is a different thing altogether than preparing for one.
Indeed, many senior government figures agree it would be madness to proceed into the New Year without examining all the options. Yet the prime minister unleashed a highly unusual attack on one of her predecessors by criticising Tony Blair for calling for a People’s Vote. There were also reports about the involvement of another former inhabitant of No10, David Cameron – who has been offering advice as a ‘backseat driver’ to May on Brexit.
On Monday, as May prepared to address the Commons in yet another prime ministerial Brexit statement, Labour announced plans to launch a motion of no confidence in the PM unless she announced the date for the meaningful vote on her deal. Crucially, the motion would be on the prime minister individually, rather than the government as a whole, and as such would carry no statutory backing, but instead be a symbolic vote of censure.
Just after getting to her feet at 3.30pm, May did indeed give a date for the meaningful vote on her deal – it would take place in the week beginning January 14. Minutes later, Corbyn abandoned plans for the confidence vote, declaring that Labour had forced May into pinning down the date. Yet just before 6pm, more than two hours into the debate, Corbyn took to the despatch box to announce he would, in fact, be tabling a motion of no confidence in May.
What followed were two hours of speculation that No.10 would allow the vote to take place, before they blocked it on the grounds that it was a political ‘stunt’. The effect of this ban was tantamount to the prime minister daring Corbyn to issue a more potent motion of no confidence in the government as a whole which, if this were to pass, would mean the government would fall and potentially trigger a general election within two weeks, if the opposition could not form a new administration.
However, it would be unlikely that a motion of no confidence in the government would be approved by the Commons because even the most rebellious Brexiteer Conservative MPs would not vote against their own government and to pave the way for a Corbyn government.
This parliamentary uphill struggle for the opposition helps explain why Labour has refused to push for the government confidence motion – because it would merely set a trap and allow May to declare yet another victory.
May’s senior allies deny that she is deliberately dismissing all alternatives and is intent on running down the clock in order to pressurise the Commons into backing her deal, with the thinly-veiled threat of a no-deal hanging over the House, but nevertheless this week the Cabinet stepped up its planning for a no-deal outcome.
Cabinet ministers discussed whether to make contingency planning for such an eventuality part of its central strategy. Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, suggested that the government’s emergency committee, Cobra, should be convened every day from the New Year to ready the authorities.
After the cabinet meeting, No.10 announced that the government would be implementing its no-deal plans ‘in full’.
With the likelihood of that scenario increasing, more than 60 MPs from four political parties signed a letter to the prime minister calling for the option of leaving the EU without a deal to be explicitly ruled out now.
In reality, if there is a Commons majority for anything, it would be to prevent a no-deal. Yet fears are growing by the day that it will happen by default. In fact, support from Tory Brexiteers for a so-called ‘managed no-deal’ arrangement is also growing.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who voted Remain in the referendum but has been attempting to burnish his Brexiteer credentials in preparation for a future leadership bid, gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in which he said: ‘I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation, this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper.’ And Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, presented such an alternative plan. Under this arrangement, Britain would leave the EU on March 29 without a deal but the transition period would still apply, allowing for what she described as a ‘managed glidepath’ under which, the minister claimed, the UK economy would not be damaged.
This rhetoric drew the anger of Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s negotiator on Brexit, who tweeted that those like Mordaunt and Hunt who ‘glorify a no-deal Brexit are totally irresponsible’. He added: ‘It is not the job of politicians to make the people they lead poorer, remove opportunities, rights and make lives more uncertain. There is no such thing as a ‘managed no deal’.’ Yet leading Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith welcomed these comments as a sign that Brussels was now starting to fear such an outcome – which would play to the UK’s strengths in negotiations.
May is not short of offers of advice – from former prime ministers, her cabinet ministers, backbench MPs and the opposition parties. But what she is short of is time. When the Commons finally gets to vote on her deal, nearly two months after it was agreed with Brussels, there will be around 80 days left until Brexit day.
The prime minister has shown she can defeat all attempts to topple her from power, but she cannot escape the unpopularity of her own deal.