Since last year’s general election, Theresa May’s premiership has been declared dead without almost metronomic regularity. The latest instalment, detailed in today’s Sunday Times, is a plot by Brexiteers to depose the prime minister after the EU Withdrawal Bill is signed into law in the second week of next month.
In short, the reasoning is that May has betrayed the vision of a clean, hard Brexit she outlined at Mansion House, is set to accept toxic compromises on migration and customs, and is pathologically unwilling to deliver a proper exit anyway. Sources close to David Davis tell the paper that she is “toast”.
While it’s probably too soon to start drafting May’s epitaph, it is more or less universally acknowledged by Tory MPs – even those usually bearish about the prospects of any change in leadership – that her future depends on the state which the Withdrawal Bill ends up passing. Indeed, the prospect of defeats on key amendments has had a chilling effect on would-be rebels, who fear a destabilising challenge to May’s leadership from hard Brexiteers.
Crucially, May has managed to survive since last June both as a result of passing unspoken tests set by consensus among the parliamentary party at key milestones – delivering a respectable showing in the local elections was one, for instance – and a lack of a realistic challenger. The passage of the Withdrawal Bill means May could fail the latest test and create such a challenger as a result – namely a candidate whose Brexit credentials could satisfy Eurosceptics.
But whether those seeking to oust May would, or indeed could, make the most of the circumstances is doubtful at best. Beyond the cabal of MPs who have an existential stake in wanting the Prime Minister to go, there is limited mainstream appetite for a leadership contest. That appetite is more limited still by the alternative candidates touted: Boris Johnson, and particularly Jacob Rees-Mogg, have too small a constituency among MPs to win. Any confidence vote seen as a precursor to a leadership race in which either stands as the tribune of a hard Brexit would be won comfortably by May. (Allies of the Prime Minister admit, however, that she would be fatally hobbled by having to do so, as Margaret Thatcher was by Anthony Meyer’s stalking horse leadership challenge in 1989.)
There is an even more basic question at play, too. As much as a certain kind of Leaver likes the consoling fiction that Johnson, Rees-Mogg or A.N. Other Brexiteer would go to Brussels and negotiate with more aggression and a clearer sense of purpose, changing prime minister will change nothing.
The same problems would persist in exacerbated form: the lack of time, the lack of a solution to the Irish border question, the lack of a way to reconcile unworkable red lines on the single market and customs union with that question in a manner acceptable to Dublin and Brussels, the EU’s aversion to cherry-picking, and the inability to strike free trade deals that would come anywhere close to compensating for the economic hit of leaving the EU.
These problems would be made worse, not eliminated, by a change to a leader the Brexiteers felt was truly one of them. And if government defeats on Withdrawal Bill amendments like the meaningful vote was their trigger for instigating it, there’s a chance they could actively deliver what they don’t want: a Brexit softened by parliament, with no chance to walk away without a deal. As increasingly hard as it is for many of them to swallow, Theresa May remains Leavers’ best bet for delivering any kind of Brexit.