Can Theresa May Survive The Brexit Pressure Cooker?

She's had a head-spinning 24 hours.
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Photo by Gavin Haynes

Is she still not smearing her faeces on the walls on Number 10? Honestly. It’s hard to know how much more pressure any PM could take without going mad. Rumour has it they’ve employed a guy in a padded bodysuit back in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and in between updating the House, phoning up M Barnier to apologise yet again, and accepting letters of resignation, Theresa spends her time having at him with a baseball bat to work out her frustrations. Don’t worry: he’s very well-paid.


It’s been a head-spinning 24 hours. Yesterday, we had 585 pages of a deal on the table. It was the best of a bad job. But it was also a bad job of making the best of a bad job. Though no one would say so, the main problem with it went back 20 years, and wasn’t actually much to do with the EU at all.

Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement piggybacked on the ambiguity open borders created, but now, by Brexiting, that ambiguity must end. So really, rather than wasting any more of poor EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s precious time, we need to go back and renegotiate Good Friday. Good luck with that.

It’s been a dawning realisation. The Tory Eurosceptic rebels of the 90s never even imagined the Irish border issue, but the best minds have pored over it, and it seems our choice is stark: forget about leaving the Customs Union, or ditch Northern Ireland. Which is it to be? In its barely 24 hours of life, the deal has been attacked from every angle, and almost all the attacks boil down to objections to one, or both, of those parts.

Last night there was a bit of hope. The Cabinet met for four hours and emerged having signed it off. But nothing that’s done stays done in the tightening gyre of 2018.

Today began, a little before 9AM, with the resignation of Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary. A Leaver, who had decided that he could not go on if the deal meant we would be wedded to the EU. In order to make the Irish Backstop work, the agreement had said we would have to dissolve it by mutual consent. As he understood it, that meant the EU would be able to keep us locked into a Customs Union indefinitely.


Not long after, his fellow Leave supporting Cabinet Ministers started dropping. 9:58AM: Esther McVey, the Works and Pensions Secretary, responsible for rolling out Universal Credit. 11:15: Suella Braverman, a junior Brexit minister. Then Shailesh Vara, a Northern Ireland junior minister, Then Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Ranil Jayawardena, Rehman Chishti, Nikki Da Costa. And on it goes.

The thing began to look like a concerted plot. Especially when the PM had to sell the deal to the Commons at midday. Jacob Rees-Mogg stood up and told her to her face that he would be “writing to the Member for Altrincham and Sale West". Cue gasps. That’s Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, and the man in charge of organising leadership contests. Brady needs to receive 48 letters of No Confidence in order to trigger a challenge. But how many he has at any given moment is always kept secret. Jacob is the unofficial leader of the backbench Eurosceptics. It seems obvious others in his 50-strong fold will follow his lead.

When Chris Leslie, Labour, stood up and asked whether Tory MPs could give him a show of hands on how many of them would support her deal, the laughter was on both sides of the aisle. Tory or Labour, speaker after speaker queued up to say that the deal was a bad one, that it made no sense, that it threatened the Union with both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that it left us – phrase of the day – a vassal state, an economic zombie before an EU that would make our rules for us. The maths was impossible: with the 50 Tory Brexiteers, plus the ten Tory ultra-Remainers, plus Labour all against it, it can never pass. Yet on she slogged for 90 minutes.


But it seems that the PM’s taking a turtle strategy: shell-up and wait. There still seems to be some belief within May’s team that they can change minds, given time. That people are furious now, sure, but it is a blow-off. Give them three weeks, let them sweat and they will see sense; they can be persuaded. The line coming out of No 10 insiders is this: they tell the Remainers that it’s this deal or Hard Brexit. And they tell the Leavers it's this deal or No Brexit. Roll Safe tapping his head meme goes here.

Her strategy is to slow things down, to wait it out, to play chicken with her unruly factions, but she might not have time to wait. The threat of a potential leadership election has gone from amber to red. Under Tory Party rules, that could take three months to play out – and yes, obviously we don’t have three months. The EU are supposed to be convening a summit on the 25th of November to sign the deal off. That can’t happen now, and neither can we have another stab at it: the EU are clear on that; they have no strategic interest in reopening negotiations.

Meanwhile, at home, government itself is breaking down. This afternoon, Michael Gove is prevaricating over whether to take on the job of replacing Raab, reportedly demanding to be able to renegotiate it with Brussels. To be fair, there are crime scene cleaners squeegeeing cerebral cortex off bathroom mirrors who’d turn it down. In 18 months, May has had more than 20 resignations. She faces a Cabinet stuffed with nonentities, like the dying days of Gordon Brown.

For the next few hours at least, the only thing still keeping her in office is a tight matrix of mutual fears. Fear from both factions that the wrong candidate may replace her. Fear that if they don’t get their act together the Tory Party may be wrecked for a generation by the next few months. Fear that losing another leader would require another General Election, and with it, the Satanic Santa of Jeremy Corbyn tumbles into Number 10.

The only way through this Gordian knot might be the same one the original one was solved: slash it. Say you won’t put up a border. Dare the Irish government to put up a border. Both sides blink, then a deliberate blind eye is turned to the flouting of customs laws, and this slightly soggy tolerance of disorder between the North and South becomes "the Backstop". But the problem for Theresa or any successor is that we live in a world bounded by bureaucrats, and you just couldn’t write that down. You definitely couldn’t put it in 585 pages.