Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has endured, arguably, what has been her toughest period yet as the resident of No. 10 Downing Street, with this last week or so proving itself a challenge.
Having endlessly staved off a settled, detailed plan of the UK government’s ideal future relationship with the EU post-Brexit, a White Paper was finally produced earlier this month, following a cabinet away day at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers.
It would certainly seem that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn possesses the great divination talents similar to that of Hogwarts Professor Mrs. Trelawney; Corbyn predicted that ‘the whole thing might unravel within a few days’ – a prediction that was to be proven correct in the days that followed. It took a mere 3 days following the initial details of the Chequers agreement being revealed before both Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had quit their respective cabinet positions.
Both certainly left their mark in their resignation letters. Davis suggested the Chequers agreement made parliamentary control an illusion, rather than reality, and was also ‘unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions’ from the EU. Johnson, however, injected all venom possible in his resignation letter; it was dripping with criticism of the Chequers agreement, arguing it set the UK up for the ‘status of a colony’ of the EU. The optics of skipping the crucial emergency COBRA meeting over the apparent murder by Novichok of UK citizen Dawn Sturgess to decide whether to resign didn’t seemingly concern Johnson, considering his extraordinary act of posing with his resignation letter – prompting considerable criticism.
Boris Johnson found time today to arrange for a photographer to capture the moment he signed his resignation letter. Doesn’t this say everything about his absurd, preening, vanity? He won’t be missed. pic.twitter.com/SM1s4CLVSz
— JOHN NICOLSON (@MrJohnNicolson) July 9, 2018
Further junior ministerial and Conservative Vice-Chair resignations have since followed. Nevertheless, a rather swift cabinet reshuffle helped weather the storm of Davis and Johnson’s resignations – even if it led to a new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport being appointed, whose twitter account has been dormant for over 3 years.
However, the Conservative backbenches are where Theresa May’s premiership will be seen to endure or break. Backbenchers like Andrea Jenkyns have openly cheered on cabinet resignations, viewing the Chequers agreement as a betrayal of Brexit. Meanwhile, possible Remain rebels lurch in the opposite direction. On Monday, former cabinet minister and University of Southampton alumni Justine Greening (below) even came out and called for a second referendum.
Arguing for one with three options and a preference system of voting – yes to the Chequers deal, no deal Brexit, or scrap Brexit and remain in the EU – Greening savaged the Chequers agreement as a ‘fudge’ and the ‘worst of both worlds’. Although the suggestion was quickly ruled out by Downing Street, Conservative backbench MP Dominic Grieve – who fought for a meaningful parliamentary vote on any deal reached with the EU – has expressed support, while Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan actually previously suggested a referendum on a negotiated deal being possible several weeks ago.
The farce of the government on Monday giving into hard Brexit-supporting Conservative MP amendments to the Customs Bill – part of the legislation implementing Brexit – to counter off a rebellion and the immediate former Remain-supporting Conservative MPs counter-rebellion, has only further highlighted divisions. The balancing act of producing a Brexit plan acceptable to both sides of the Conservative party has never seemed more impossible, with two amendments passed by just 3 votes – the same number of Labour rebels voting with the government – and another minister quitting to vote against.
What will it take for May’s time as Prime Minister to end? A no confidence vote and leadership contest. In order to trigger the process, 48 Conservative MPs need to send letters of no confidence to Graham Brady MP, head of the all-powerful backbench 1922 Committee. May must then simply win a simple majority of Conservative MPs in a secret ballot to secure herself for a year, since no further confidence vote can be triggered within 12 months. If she loses, a leadership contest is triggered, which she cannot stand in.
In reality, a close vote would spell the end of May. With the parliamentary numbers meaning Conservative party unity is required to pass all crucial Brexit, as well as more general, legislation, her position may well be untenable if even only around a third of Conservative MPs (105) prefer a new leader.
Parliament is scheduled to break up on 24 July for its summer break, to return in September – despite attempts on behalf of the government to vote for an earlier recess. The Conservative Party conference is scheduled for 30 September-3rd October in Birmingham. By this point, regardless of Conservative divisions, a deal with the EU will need to be sorted by if it is to get approved by the European Parliament and nation states before 29 March 2019 – the date when the UK is set to officially leave the EU.
Which is why the idea of the PM inviting a vote of confidence in herself is not as mad as it may seem. She has little personal authority to lose and some persuasive power to gain. But it would be a dice roll https://t.co/NmttvtURf0
— Robert Peston (@Peston) July 16, 2018
Interestingly, ITV‘s Political Editor Robert Peston has raised the compelling prospect of May possibly calling for a no confidence vote this week – in effect, a ‘put up or shut up’ vote, to settle the matter. If backbench discontent stretches through the summer and resurfaces at the crunch point of Brexit negotiations, or the Conservative conference, a no confidence vote then would be the worst possible timing for May. Furthermore, such an action may also allow Hard Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs to coalesce around a Brexiteer, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Calling a confidence vote now, in a similar way to another grey-hair Conservative Prime Minister frazzled by Tory EU divisions effectively did in 1995, may be the best way for May to prolong her fragile premiership. Reports of a WhatsApp group of around 100 Brexit-supporting MPs organising Commons rebellions to undermine the Chequers agreement may actually mean May has nothing to lose at this stage. Ultimately however, the question remains whether May’s previous moment of sudden impulsive decisiveness – calling a snap general election last year, and the subsequent results of that decision – haunts her, preventing her from taking this bold path.