The chaos of the government’s Brexit policy has caused self-inflicted damage and internecine recrimination unseen in the Tory party since Black Wednesday in 1992. The dangers of allowing the civil service to engage in nakedly political policy-making was confirmed when Theresa May let Oliver Robbins, the official in charge of Brexit, dictate the concessions to Brussels at the heart of the Chequers “agreement”, and then the white paper published last week. Neither paid much regard to the sensibilities of any but a small minority of constituency activists, with results we now behold.
Never mind the resignations – some principled, some opportunistic – of ministers and aides that followed; the party also lost foot soldiers, with pictures of torn-up membership cards appearing on social media. Letters of protest written by activists went viral on the internet, which have been exploited to organise opposition to the Europe policy. With the tin ear for which she is famed, Theresa May had failed entirely to understand that just because one claims a policy is the complete opposite of what it actually is, and because greasy careerists have supported the pretence in the interests of ambition, it does not mean the public will swallow it. Whatever some may wish to believe, many Tory activists are highly politically literate. May’s amateurish attempt to trick them has damaged her, and her party’s prospects, dramatically.
Activists – notably councillors – are already thinking of next spring’s local elections, with members either leaving the Tories or refusing to campaign or to vote for them. They have told Tory MPs they expect them to defend what was voted for in 2016: to leave the EU, no ifs, no buts. Ukip, which until a few days ago was on a life-support machine, has jumped in polls at the expense of the Tories. Word reaching Conservative Central Office not merely of disaffection, but of outright rebellion, at the grass roots prompted a plea from the party chairman, Brandon Lewis, to local chairmen to support May’s policy. It was largely ignored.
The reasons for this latest debacle are not to do with Europe, but with the Prime Minister’s inadequacies. She continues to claim black is white and expects others to believe her: accepting a Brexiteer amendment to a trade bill last Monday (and in doing so forcing another ministerial resignation, this time from a Remainer), she said it would not prevent the policy in the white paper from being implemented. This was hair-splitting at best, depending as it does on a definition (as yet unclear) of reciprocity between UK and EU trade tariffs.
She appoints to key roles people either unequal to or compromised by them. Lewis is regarded with dismay as a party chairman, his unconscious impression of a geezer selling used cars on the Southend Arterial Road grating with many colleagues, and his failure to engage in anything resembling political attacks on Labour creating astonishment, given the Tories’ precarious position.
May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, is dismissed as a self-important nonentity. The new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, was (as an avowed Brexiteer) presumably appointed to calm nerves after David Davis’s resignation and the unsatisfactory perception of the Chequers “agreement”. However, Raab’s naked ambition has earned him the contempt of many Brexiteers, who find it hard to understand how he can look in the mirror each morning. He was often spoken of as a potential future leader, but Paddy Power should lengthen the odds now.
Such is the growing state of alarm around May that the government sought, equally chaotically, to end the parliamentary session five days early, to get MPs away from where they might cause unrest. But dispersing Brexiteer MPs from Westminster will make little difference to their campaign against a policy that they, probably rightly, believe is dead in the water. And, because of the woeful mismanagement, a growing number have a second target after the white paper, which is May herself.
Only Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, knows how many MPs have written to him demanding a vote of confidence in May. Among MPs, usually febrile by mid-July, the belief is that so many claim to have done so that the magic number – 48 – must be in view. It is not, though, an entirely honest electorate.
May has few genuine friends and few genuine supporters. She has survived so long because of fear of a Corbyn government – a fear she has mentioned herself to enlist support for her European policy. However, the threat is empty: the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (which, ironically, most Tory MPs abhor) makes it easy for an incumbent government to throw out its leader and replace her, or him, without provoking a general election; and an election need not be held until 2022. Even May’s sympathisers feel she is sinking. Internal divisions make it unlikely she would lose a vote of confidence: but highly unlikely, too, that she would win sufficiently to avoid compounding her aura of weakness and endangering her future.
She survives, too, because of the absence of an obvious rival. Michael Gove is said to be “on manoeuvres”, but he also has become a target for the wrath of the grass roots for not having denounced the European policy, as has Liam Fox. Were Gove to reach the last two of a leadership contest – and MPs might well put him there – he would, one MP said to me, have to be up against Anna Soubry or Nicky Morgan to stand a chance of winning. But May shows no sign of going, or even of realising she ought to consider going. If she resigned no one would blame her. Some colleagues hope she will. Otherwise they may have to take matters into their own hands, an exigency to which few look forward, but more and more fear may yet be necessary.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact