Are the Tories finally going to oust Theresa May? The Prime Minister has managed to hold on to power vastly longer than the pundits thought. She was first expected to be turfed out quickly as a result of her disastrous decision to call a snap election last year. Then conventional wisdom held that she’d be gone before Christmas.
Without going over the fever chart of May’s perceived standing, two things have helped her stay in power are the lack of attractive alternative as party leader and the continued delusion over Brexit. On the hard core Brexit side, Boris Johnson is too famously erratic and disliked by too many to cinch enough support. Michael Gove seems always to be in the wings but his candidacy seems always to go off the rails before it even gets enough steam. Rees-Mogg is the darling of the ultras, but that is enough to give other people willies.
And on the softer Brexit side of the Tories, there’s the (relatively) solid Philip Hammond, but the hard Brexit camp has enough control over the party than anyone who isn’t as rabid as they are is disqualified.
Now at some point, there is going to be a political crisis in the UK. I am nowhere near familiar enough with UK politics to be able to sketch out what shape it might take. But one reason the bizarre denialism about Brexit isn’t simply that the Goverment isn’t remotely capable of handling the task, and has talked itself into believing that the EU will be super nice and come up with some sort of 11th hour procedural fudge that will spare the UK from doing heavy lifting and making real sacrifices. It is also that coming to grips with what kind of Brexit the UK wants means one wing of the Tory party will win and the other will lose. The ultras are bloody-minded enough that they might blow up the party, or at least turf May out, if they don’t get their way. Right now, they don’t seem to have the numbers. But will that change when the Brits can no longer ignore the biggest, ugly reality of Brexit: that they have little bargaining leverage and that the EU will not be moved by the UK throwing its toys out of the pram?
If nothing else, the emotional pitch of the latest intra-party row seems more intense than earlier spats. The trigger was that Hammond, speaking at Davos, made the mistake of pumping for a version of Brexit that some readers have advocated, “Brexit in name only”. As Politico described it:
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, long an advocate of a cautious retreat from the EU, gave his most explicit endorsement yet for a Brexit in which the U.K.-EU economic relationship would alter only “modestly.” Speaking at a lunch hosted by the Confederation of British Industry in Davos, Switzerland, he welcomed CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn’s speech this week calling for a customs union with the EU. “We are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade between them, and selectively moving them, hopefully very modestly, apart,” he said.
Needless to say, this didn’t go over well:
Hammond says Brexit will only mean “very modest” changes and free movement will stay.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) January 25, 2018
Precisely…. Brexiteers have been May’s base at home, if they decide to start making public trouble PM faces a v bumpy time https://t.co/LvGGH5NW5R
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) January 25, 2018
Now this then led to 40 MPs saying they wanted May out, short of the needed 48 to trigger a leadership battle. The tweetstrorm below describes the mechanics, for you procedural junkies:
Oh my god, I am LOVING the unnecessary drama surrounding the weird way in which Tory MPs get to trigger a leadership contest.
Quick recap for people who might have better things to do with their lives:
— Marie Le Conte (@youngvulgarian) January 25, 2018
And The Times tells us May has beaten up Hammond, so that should cool tempers for now. But she also had to slap around Boris Johnson too:
A Downing Street source spelt out Mrs May’s displeasure at the text of the speech that was not fully cleared by No 10, saying: “While we want a deep and special economic partnership with the EU after we leave, these could not be described as very modest changes.”
It is the second time that the prime minister has reprimanded a senior colleague in three days.
On Tuesday she rebuked Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, in cabinet over his call for the NHS to be given an additional £5 billion a year immediately after Brexit.
Infighting is rising because the Tories are already considering a revolt if the party does badly in May elections. From the Guardian (hat tip Richard Smith):
Conservative MPs are considering another attempt at ousting Theresa May if the local elections go badly, as disillusionment with her leadership bubbles up among backbenchers once again.
A string of MPs have told the Guardian that criticism from Nick Boles, a former minister, of her “timidity and lack of ambition” has struck a chord within the parliamentary party, especially among those who believe she is falling short on domestic issues….
One former minister said the most dangerous time for the prime minister would be after the local election results in May if there is a wipeout of Conservative-held councils in London, with Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, and Kingston all potential opposition targets. He also cited areas outside the capital such as Swindon and Amber Valley as potentially vulnerable to falling to Labour or no overall control.
Another senior Conservative MP said he had supported May at the start of her premiership because of her promise to focus on social injustice but it was increasingly clear there was a “vacuum of ideas” at the heart of her government.
And the farce of Brexit talks goes on. Philip Stevens described in the Financial Times how the UK would have to negotiate a trade deal with the EU as a third country, as if that were news. The UK and EU would never have been able to negotiate a trade pact in the two-year time frame stipulated by Article 50, particularly given the mechanics of getting approvals from member states. All the EU and UK would be able to devise is a political statement about a deal and at best some general commitments.
Similarly, Hammond tried to persuade Macron that limiting the access of London-based financial institutions would be a “tremendous act of self-harm”. Help me. Europe has large financial firms of its own. Parties operating out of London are perfectly capable of getting the needed licenses in the EU and moving staff or hiring them.
For the UK political mavens: do you think May holds on despite the odds precisely because the two wings of her party are at each other’s throat? And if not, what might happen?