Theresa May’s political career is edging ever-closer to the abyss after a stormy Cabinet meeting over her failure to find a solution to the Irish border problem and the associated threat of a “no-deal” Brexit.
A group of ministers including Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss and Michael Gove demanded a time limit on any “backstop” – a temporary arrangement allowing extra time to find a way to keep a ‘soft’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if one cannot be reached before the UK leaves the EU. But another group including David Lidington insisted that the EU would not agree an exit deal without an indefinite “backstop”.
In other words, they spent an extraordinarily long meeting squabbling among themselves.
That is exactly the way Conservative backbenchers have come to view these debates. And, with Mrs May summoned to a meeting of the backbench 1922 committee today (October 24), at which she is expected to plead for their support, it seems unlikely that she will get it.
Instead, she is more likely to find that the number of letters demanding a vote of “no confidence” against her, sent to 1922 committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, has increased beyond the 48 necessary to precipitate such a vote.
It seems MPs in the “silent centre” – not deep in the Brexit fight, as Beth Rigby characterises them below – have lost patience with the incessant arguments among their leaders and are now keen to end the dithering by ending the tenure of their leader:
Not one of the ‘usual suspects’, a centrist Tory tells me they’re sending a letter of No Confidence to Brady. This is a shift. Before it was those deep in the Brexit fight who wanted to oust her. If those in ‘silent centre’ now ready to send letters, she really is in danger zone
— Beth Rigby (@BethRigby) October 22, 2018
But how close is that confidence vote? Evolve Politics has a view about that:
Sources tell us that the magic ‘48 letters’ figure is now “95% complete”. 😉🤫
— Evolve Politics (@evolvepolitics) October 23, 2018
Mrs May must be regretting the use of that 95 per cent figure. It was used in a Commons debate on Monday to suggest that the Brexit deal is nearly complete – and a Labour MP immediately observed that the Titanic completed 95 per cent of its journey without incident (and we all know how that story ended).
The claim isn’t even true, though – according to Labour (and Remainer) MEP Richard Corbett:
When the govt says the #Brexit deal is 95% done, it’s talking of only HALF the deal, namely the divorce arrangements. The other (more important) half is the yet-to-be-reached agreement on future relations, covering trade, security, research & a multitude of small practical things https://t.co/WWUSkaWeGd
— Richard Corbett (@RCorbettMEP) October 23, 2018
So: No deal with the EU can be supported in Parliament because the Cabinet cannot agree on it – and in any case there is much more yet to be resolved.
Backbenchers’ minds will be focused on the reputational damage to their party if a “no-deal” Brexit takes place. Mr Lidington reportedly fears it cause as much harm as Black Wednesday, when the Pound crashed out of the then-European Exchange Rate Mechanism under a Conservative government, wrecking the Tories’ then-reputation as a party of economic competence.
If Mrs May stays and Brexit is fumbled, the Conservatives could be out of office for at least a generation. Considering the current state of the party’s membership – whose average age is well past 70 – they may never recover.
These are valid reasons for backbenchers to seek Mrs May’s removal, and they may decide that is the best course of action at the meeting.
Or will she fob them off with more flannel about how well her plans are proceeding?
*I know there’s a separate row about the use of metaphors involving physical violence in our political discourse. But references to Conservative leaders being stabbed in the back by their own MPs go back at least as far as Edward Heath, the first Conservative prime minister in This Writer’s lifetime. Margaret Thatcher did the dirty on him, as Geoffrey Howe later did to her.