How Theresa May Led Hardcore Tory Brexiteers Into a Trap
She swerved a proper rebellion by playing everyone else off against each other.
Theresa May's new cabinet following the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson. Photo: @theresa_may
Still they come. Tuesday saw a few more resignations trickle out of the government. Ben Bradley, the youthful Conservative Party vice chair most famous for being bounced into a grovelling Twitter apology to Corbyn over the "Czech spy" libels, went. So did someone called Maria Caulfield, who has never done anything that interesting. On the back benches, Andrew Bridgen, MP for somewhere in Leicestershire, announced that he would be submitting a letter to Graham Brady, who runs the 1922 Committee. If Brady gets 48 such letters, it triggers a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
A series of small explosions are still going off in the background of the Tory party, but as the smoke clears it seems like any larger revolution has run out of steam. We're in mop-up now. The Maybot is re-taking the streets, but leaving operational control to her subordinates.
Hunt – Remain – at the Foreign Office. Javid – Remain – Home Office. Hammond – Remain – Chancellor. All of the Great Offices of State are now locked down. On the opposite side, Boris didn't co-ordinate with Davis, who in turn failed to co-ordinate with any of the other six government ministers who’ve quit.
Each resignation letter has stung. Boris's turned up the volume on his Churchill impersonation app: "That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt"; "In that respect we are truly headed for the status of colony".
But these now feel like the agonised cries of the mortally wounded rather than the snarling of a big beast cornered. Neither Davis nor Boris seems to feel that May deserves to go. Instead, they seemed to feel that they needed to go.
That duo talked of being "unable to carry the room" at the Chequers summit. When all the potential negotiating strategies were proposed, a Remain-stacked cabinet wouldn't back theirs. Simple arithmetic did for them. There was a popularity contest, and they lost. And while it’s not easy to credit May with strategic nous, it certainly feels like they walked into her trap.
It's always seemed like the goal of Theresa's Team is the survival of Theresa May. They had a problem – no clarity, squabbling ministers privateering their own trade policies. Their solution was to look at it as a problem of man-management rather than ideology. The answer? A stage-managed showdown. Go to Chequers. Give everyone half a dozen crayons to draw their own future for Blighty, then pick the winner.
The backbone of that strategy was that the PM could still seem aloof. Whatever fudge resulted would never be her terrible idea; it would be dipping everyone else's hands in the blood. If she went, the party would effectively be giving a verdict on the entire cabinet.
And only a year after the botch-job election, she calculated that no one would be prepared to bump her off if it made the Tory party seem like they were infighting at a time of crisis.
In short, she booby-trapped Chequers. Her very weakness at the last election meant no one would risk another. And instead of offering leadership, she effectively got her ministers to fight each other to the death, with the prize on offer being only the continued survival of a May government.
Of course, her problems were never just about the cabinet. On the back benches, Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group – the 53 MPs who make up the Hard Brexit hardcore – are spluttering, incandescent, gnashing. For 90s heads like Bill Cash and John Redwood, this weekend represented the destruction of their life's work. Mogg, effectively their leader, is talking about voting down any deal in Parliament. But that would bring down the government, risking handing Number 10 to Corbyn. Technically, if all 53 submitted letters, they could trigger a no-confidence vote instead. But again, it seems they don’t quite have the stomach for regicide.
Well played, Tezza. What a blinder. Only, there’s one big problem left. And that’s inherent in the nature of the solution.
May has solved Danny Dyer's "mad riddle" by simply splitting the difference, taking Britain into a "trade harmonisation" pact that means keeping almost all of Brussels' rules, while never making any of them. It's a King Solomon playbook for divorcing parents: "Just cut the baby in half." Boris is wrong about "the status of a colony". The more accurate term for the new settlement is suzerainity – indirect rule through semi-autonomous local puppet leaders.
Back in the country, people are starting to cotton on. The comments sections of conservative newspapers are vomiting hot bile, breaking the spell of narcotised Three Lions joy to flood with Tory voters saying they were tearing up their membership cards. No small issue: 70 percent of Conservatives are pro-Brexit, after all. Theresa saved her own sanity, but she may have lost the next three general elections for her successor.