Latest Tory Brexit Row: Another Bun Fight or a Cage Match?

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:

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:

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?

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  1. John A

    And yet amidst all this, the Tories are bigging up the ‘Russia Scare’ more and more each day:
    Latest headline today from the very right wing and Brexit Daily Telegraph

    “Russia ready to ‘kill thousands and thousands’ of Britons with crippling attack, Defence Secretary warns”

    The entire article is behind a paywall, but I would happily wager it is evidence free.

  2. fajensen

    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.

    That would be Jeremy Corbyn winning a general election. The general hysteria and media frenzy following that will make Donald Trump look like the sage and indeed wise choice in hindsight;

    I maintain a stock of some special cigars and Cognac for these “world ending” occasions.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Anyone who thinks the UK is a democracy will get a rude awakening if Corbyn wins a clear majority. The freakout would make the aftermath of the Trump victory seem mild and rational in comparison. I actually think a coup would be a possibility (albeit of a ‘very British’ type).

      1. jabawocky

        I’m not so sure. Even Tories are starting to come out with support for some of Corbyn’s policies, such as more government investment in the economy, more money for health services and tackling social problems. Theresa May is alarming business leaders who now mainly realise that most of what Corbyn proposes is now in their best interests, including brexit policy. The UK voter base is more radicalised by the month, seeing their relatives going sick into hospitals and coming out with no treatment, homeless people in large numbers on the street, fast rising violent crime, and no police anywhere to be seen. One by one, parts of the population are realising that something has to change. While Corbyn is offering potential solutions (whatever you may think of them), it is increasingly clear carrying on as we are is a very bad option, and that Theresa May offers only soundbites.

        Now it may be that foreign powers and media might try to destabilise a Corbyn-led UK a la Venezuela. But while elements of the establishment will no doubt encourage this, I suspect most realise that far-right Tories are much more of a threat to their interests than Corbyn and McDonnell.

      2. EoH

        The US, for example, has all manner of ways it can express its displeasure at the UK’s choice of prime minister. Ask Harold Wilson, or that colonial, Gough Whitlam (with a Ouija board, perhaps). It might be harder without the Soviet bogeyman, but CIA chaps are an inventive bunch.

        I think you’re right: May is hanging on because the two sides of her party are so at each other’s throats they could never agree on an alternative. Plus, the DUP appears to be hanging out with the party that brought them to the dance (and paid for the limo). That and the firestorm extremists would foment at the thought of a non-neoliberal Corbyn at the helm, aided by much of the press. All of their privatization plans gone poof in a single election.

        I don’t see an out for May so much as an immersion in a rising tide of reality. Short of a coup, that would leave Labour to pick up the pieces, with a mangled, uncooperative Tory party kicking and screaming as if they were members of the Freedom Caucus. Parliament would never refurbish its home under those circumstances.

      3. RBHoughton

        I think a coup is unlikely because the dissatisfied people with a labour government, the perpetrators of a coup, would predictably by the denizens of spookery, media barons and other great capitalists. I doubt they would be joined by officers of the armed forces although they have their grudges, because UK has spent a vast amount of money on weapons of offensive war (aircraft carriers and nuclear powered subs) whilst cutting social spending to pay for them, so the soldiers have a realistic expectation of imminent offensive war, medals, honours and an excessive number of ‘forlorn hopes.’ So the prospect of a platoon entering the debating chambers and evicting the MPs seems slight imo.

  3. RabidGandhi

    …[the May Government] 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.

    For what it’s worth, I was recently in British-occupied southern Spain– a region one would expect to be most keenly abreast of all things Brexit– and this was the unanimous opinion: “they’ll sort something at the last minute like they always do”. Unanimous, as if reading from a script. Thus, insofar as my anecdotal experience extrapolates, it almost makes the UK look democratic; the government is truly representing the riotously delusional popular opinion (and/or vice-versa).

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Back during the Brexit vote there was a fascinating series of articles by John Harris in the Guardian where he went around interviewing random people. He did a couple of articles in Spain and he noted the wierd paradox these people found themselves in – they were all natural Brexiters in terms of demographics and politics, but all realised their precarious position in the event of Brexit. Many were genuinely horrified by the vote, and were immediately hit hard by the drop in sterling (which was at least as big a threat to them as the change in status). I guess they seem to have come to terms with it – I’ve not heard of any great change in the flow of retirees to the sun. I suspect that so long as health payments keep flowing the Spanish will turn a blind eye – I’ve heard from one doctor I know who worked a while in Spain that the Analusian health system is almost entirely funded through hospital charges to north European retirees.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    I’m no British politics maven, but I’m not sure this is the endgame yet for May. The problem for the Tories is that I think nobody wants to press the trigger unless they are fairly sure ‘their side’ will win. Better to have a weak leader than an ultra of one side or another. All the main candidates to replace May are deeply flawed, even their own supporters can see that. Davis is probably the only major name likely to be fairly acceptable across the board, but as time goes on he is looking more and more out of his depth. So this does leave a door open to a dark horse candidate, and I suspect most of the Tories fear that possibility as this is how they ended up with a third rater like May in the first place. There is a mantra in Tory thinking that goes that if someone is willing to destroy their own career to stop candidate X becoming leader, Candidate X will never become leader. I think this applies to almost all the obvious candidates.

    One thing I’m not sure about is why the Brexit ultras, who I think number between around 50 to 100 of the parliamentary party (but probably a clear majority of the grassroots), kept their mouths shut in December at the Phase I agreement. They must have seen that the transition arrangment is an opportunity for the ‘soft’ Brexiters or even the Remainers. I can only assume that they either decided on a ‘wait and see’ strategy, or they decided the timing wasn’t right for them to rock the boat. In either case, I think this means they are trying to decide among themselves who should wave the flag for a hard Brexit and get behind him or her in a leadership move.

    I suspect that May will stay in power until one of the big names – most likely Johnson or Gove, finally loses patience and makes a ‘now or never’ move (possibly with a stalking horse). Johnson himself is notoriously impulsive (and probably quite dumb), as is Davis, so you can never rule it out. Gove is a nasty little creep, but he seems to be smart enough to play a longer game.

    If I was into political betting, I would bet that T. May will last at least until the May local elections, but may perhaps use a bad result as an excuse to bow out (she certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the job). Although the Tories are doing amazingly well in the polls considering their incompetence, local elections tend attract protest votes, so I think Labour will do well. I think Gove would win, simply because he’s not as deeply hated by some senior Tories as much as Johnson, Davis, or Rees-Mogg is, and he is hard line enough for the Ultras. I’ve seen nothing, however, to suggest he is any more capable and intelligent than May or the others. They really are all a wretched bunch. As a colleague of mine said in relation to the British government right now ‘I love watching the Tories, for once in my life they make our (Irish) politicians look impressive!’

  5. paul

    No maven here either; just a hapless subject.

    To me, it looks like the establishment is in a totally incoherent state of free flowing anxiety. Government has completely given way to office politics and,despite everything they touch turning to shit, the tories remain untouchable in the mainstream for fear of aiding the mysterious threat of Corbyn.

    I see the tories propping up May, beau geste style, for a while yet as none of the front runners really want the job (remember the gove/johnston backstabbing panto at the last leadership contest). The only real business will be to continue ripping the copper out of the state. That’s easy, they know how to do that.

    One area they do seem to be taking seriously is a possible independence referendum:

    The scotland office, westminster’s beach head in the devolved region has seen a staff count rise from 5->71 and a healthy promotional budget increase to give jobs to the ‘hang mandela’ types that find a natural home there.

    The ruth davidson faction in westminster bravely denying the labour amendment that EU powers should be repatriated to the devolved administrations. This was not widely reported but certainly widely ignored.

    The BBC’s bizarre handout to largely foreign owned print media, in which scotland has been most generously favoured.

  6. David

    Under the normal rules of British politics, May would have been out last year. But these normal rules imply two things: (1) at least one competent alternative candidate, capable of leading the party and (2) no insuperable ideological divisions. Neither is true here. There is literally no-one with the qualities needed to lead the Tory Party (not to mention the nation) through the consequences of shambles the Brexiters have created. Likewise, the Tory Party’s instinct for power has meant that leaders have been able to put together Cabinets reflecting a number of different opinions, that have been reasonably solid. But whereas you could have disagreement within a Cabinet about further privatizing the NHS for example, you can’t have disagreement about what kind of Brexit you want, not at this stage in the game. To say “May will go” is to say “someone else will take over”, and that’s the difficult bit. It doesn’t matter how bad the local election results are, for example, we have to keep our eye not on May, but on the existence of some hypothetical figure who could take over. Most Tories, I think, calculate that May’s departure would be much more damaging for the Tory Party than leaving her in the job.
    This means that the political crisis you foresee may be internal to the Tory Party, and won’t necessarily lead to a General Election. Even if it did, a Corbyn government would be next in line to have its internal contradictions over Europe publicly exposed.

    1. Strategist

      Yves asks:

      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. …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?

      My two penn’orth: What they always say about the Tories is, never underestimate their determination to do what it takes to stay in power. And in a voting system which hardwires in a two party duopoly, that means never splitting the party as presented to the people at elections.

      I think May, for all her myriad inadequacies, has after trial and error arrived at the only viable Brexit plan to simultaneously keep her promise that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and preserve the British economy in a non-catastrophic state: Brexit in Name Only (BINO aka vassal state). To be fair, this has only been apparent since the defeat of anti-EU parties in the French and Dutch elections. If the French presidential second round had been Le Pen v Melenchon, then the EU could have fallen apart by now.

      I suggest that Davis, Gove and Johnson must have agreed that this is the only viable way forward – they don’t want the crisis Yves speaks of. What their strategy is to conceal that they have caved in to the EU on everything, I don’t know, but I suppose they must have Murdoch, Paul Dacre the editor of the Daily Mail and the BBC signed up to the plan. They will have been be encouraged by their successful passing off of December’s caving in on everything in the first round of talks as a successful deal.

      My guess is what the Tory party wants is to be able to say to its voters, we gave you Brexit and look there was no cliff edge, Project Fear was lies again. May can then resign saying my job here is done. Then they can have a leadership election, by which time some bright young thing vaguely resembling a human being capable of uniting the party to fight and win a general election against Corbyn may have emerged. Amber Rudd, perhaps.

      Obviously Rees-Mogg and the ultras are furious, and they may succeed in triggering a leadership challenge. Johnson obviously thinks he can do a better job than May, and his comments last week on NHS funding to signal that he is a semi-detached member of the cabinet but unsackable was a nifty clever-clever manoeuvre. But if the ultras succeed in triggering a leadership contest, I reckon he won’t throw his hat into the ring. He wants to win the leadership post 2019. My guess is that the cabinet would unite behind a Prime Minister they detest as they did for Major and, despite her dreadful shortcomings as a public speaker, she would win.

      The problem is that BINO is an utterly shit solution to anything except for fighting and winning Tory party internal battles. Just as holding an EU referendum was in the first place!

      So how do the political forces that want to see Remain plot a way forward? If come October the offer on the table to the British Parliament from Her Majesty’s Government is BINO, and they vote it down, then it’s either a general election or a second referendum. Nobody in the establishment wants a general election Corbyn might win, and so it would be a referendum with BINO v Remain on the ballot paper. Hard Brexit wouldn’t be a box on it. The hard Brexiteers would go apeshit, which would be very funny, and it’s not clear to me what they could actually do about it. If Labour signs up for a second referendum then the votes are there to carry it. Remember, Farage has precisely zero MPs and Rees-Mogg about 40-50?

      I haven’t thought the above through very carefully, but that’s my first draft. Who do you think you are kidding, Ms Yves Smith, if you think old England’s done?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Very interesting ideas, I think there could be a lot of truth in your ideas. I think most serious Tories with leadership ambitions would much prefer it to be post 2020, when (they would hope) the worst of the Brexit fall out would have happened. I think you are right that May and the more sensible Tories are inching towards BINO, but the wrath of the Brexiters will be mighty as soon as this becomes overtly obvious. I don’t actually think May is strong enough to withstand them, and the fear in the establishment of Corbyn will mean she will be very unlikely to do a parliamentary deal with them.

  7. paul

    If I was a betting man, I’d put 5 great british pounds on that egregious chancer, Liam Fox, being dragged out of the closet for the next captain of the grounded ship of state.
    He would be a disposable makeweight while the ‘natural leaders’ try to figure out some sort of strategy.

    1. Anonymous2

      Also no expert in today’s politics but if PK is right and it is Gove who makes the key move, then it is pretty much the same as Murdoch making the decision. Reportedly it was Murdoch who instructed Gove to knife Johnson in the summer of 2016 and of course Murdoch sat in on Gove’s interview with Trump when Gove was in political rehab. So Gove is little more than Murdoch’s puppet IMO.

      There are, I think, a number of powers behind the scenes who are presumably sizing each other up, jostling for position: Murdoch, as already mentioned; the Legatum Institute, rumoured to be bribing some MPs to back a ‘crashing out’ Brexit; Dacre, the Mail’s editor, normally allied to Murdoch but not necessarily always, and who is probably May’s protector if anyone is; the Telegraph which clearly at times has sought to push Johnson as their man for No 10. Who knows who else might be trying to influence matters? Putin? Maybe. It would probably not be the first time the Russians have tried to influence UK politics – it seems pretty clear some of the trade unions bosses back in the 1970s were in cahoots with the Russians in seeking to cause disruption (yes foreign powers can seek to influence domestic politics even in good old Blighty).

      One question is what are their ambitions apart from merely to increase their power? Murdoch is said to hate the English. Does he want to do them as much harm as possible before departing this earth or is he only seeking to reinforce his power inside No 10.? It is in part uncertainty about the precise balance of power behind the scenes and in the Parliamentary Tory party that makes it very difficult to foretell the future.

      I think David is absolutely right that there is no clear successor to May at present. As long as this lasts she is probably safe. Once she agrees a Brexit settlement, however, she is probably toast shortly after as the Tories will want to scapegoat her for the consequences which, whatever the deal, will inevitably disappoint a large swathe of people.

      One very likely outcome is that the Tories pump up some newcomer who is untarnished by the fiasco of the last two years. My guess is May will try to organise her succession so that someone like Williamson takes over from her.

      Of course all of this may prove vainglorious next week. Rumour has it that the EU will propose making the UK’s mooted temporary vassal state status the basis for the long term deal. Some balloons will go up if that is the case, possibly with very unpredictable results.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I don’t know much about Williamson, but Marina Hyde puts the knife in to him today. He sounds like he fits in very well with the modern Tory party.

        Gavin Williamson is so desperate to be prime minister that he’s done a kiss-and-tell on a Scarborough fireplace saleswoman. Stay classy, secretary of state! It helps to consider the Tories as not simply the natural party of government, but also the natural party of dignity. You should particularly admire the way that Gavin tried to distract us from his kiss-and-tell in the Mail by informing the Telegraph the Russians are ready to “kill thousands and thousands and thousands” of Britons with a crippling attack on the UK’s energy supply.

      2. witters

        “it seems pretty clear some of the trade unions bosses back in the 1970s were in cahoots with the Russians in seeking to cause disruption”

        Might seem pretty clear to you, but can we see the evidence? And why “trade union bosses” not union leaders? I tend to see that as pretty much always indicative.

        1. Anonymous2

          If you Google kgb and the names of some of the union leaders of the time you will see what I mean. The BBC has material as has the history of MI5.

          Don’t take me to be anti -union. I think it a great shame that the union voice in the UK is not more influential. But the actions of some in 1979 were stupid almost beyond belief IMO. Destroying Callaghan’s chances of re-election in order to hand the country over to Thatcher was an act of epic self-harm by the unions.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I’d certainly agree that the Unions were guilty of almighty hubris in the 1970’s and were at least partially responsible for what happened in the 1980’s. To undermine Callaghan when they did was incredible stupidity.

            I don’t know about the influence on British Unions, but certainly I remember in Ireland that some small left wing groups were caught red handed getting cash from the Soviets and even North Korea. I recall one method was for rolls of money to be left buried under a certain tree in public parks. But there was general mirth at the time among left wingers at the choice of ‘agents’, it was mostly eccentric fringe groups (although at least one of them later merged with Irish Labour and individuals involved became enthusiastic austerians in 2010 when they came to power).

  8. Synoia

    William Rees-Mogg, current Rees-Mogg’s father, RAF Evaluation

    “His reference from his commanding officer stated that he was competent to perform simple tasks under supervision”

    Says much of Tories.

  9. vlade

    Tory party is so split, that I suspect May falling down would mean Tories splintering into two. If it wasn’t for Brexit, I’d say “bring it on and get me some popcorn” – but I can see maybe only two or three (if that, the only one I’d really put money on is Ken Clarke)Tories now who would really be willing to put country before party.

    May we live in interesting times.

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