Have Tory Brexiteers finally crossed the Rubicon? That’s the conclusion Conservative MPs have reached after last night’s meeting of the European Research Group, where there was only one item on the agenda: getting rid of Theresa May.
The brazen plotting session – gleefully described as “amazing” by one attendee – was all Tory MPs were talking about in the Commons lobbies and bars last night and is being excitedly reported this morning. But what’s actually new?
That the ERG are unhappy with May is at this point an immutable fact of life. And privately, most Conservatives are more than happy to discuss the who, what, who, when and why of the Prime Minister’s eventual departure in private chats, and with journalists in a stage whisper. Backbenchers like Andrew Bridgen and Andrea Jenkyns happily do it through a megaphone.
In that distinction lies the significance of last night. Leadership chatter has been the incidental music to the Prime Minister’s life since last June but very few Tory MPs put their heads above the parapet and say explicitly that to engineer her exit now, as so many of them did en masse and in front of one another at what was effectively a public forum.
Though it was a private meeting, as one senior Brexiteer MP nobly reminded me last night, every detail was always going to leak – which it did to ITV’s Robert Peston and then the Telegraph. Veterans of putsches past say it was a new level of viciousness. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says one attendee. “Fifty MPs just matter of factly discussing it openly.”
Talk of a revolt is a mark of how badly Downing Street is handling things. It’s easy to laugh when Brexiteers insist that they are in the business of changing policy and not the Prime Minister, but some of them actually mean it. But private dinners at Number 10, at which May’s comms chief Robbie Gibb is attempting to talk Leavers round to backing Chequers, are the subject of much derision among Tories despite claims that waverers are being won round. Talk of May fighting the next election has also set teeth on edge.
Here comes the but. Once you get past “Sack Theresa”, Leavers are singing from different hymn sheets. They run the gamut from “Sack Her Now”, “Give Her ‘Til November”, “She’s Got ‘Til Summer” to “She’s Useless, But Let’s Give Her An Escape Route From Chequers and Get Our Free Trade Deal”. And many others haven’t yet reached “Sack Theresa”. Such is the problem with the Brexiteers, who are much less cohesive than is often made out: they all know what they’re against, but don’t share a vision of what they want instead, much less how to make it happen.
The change of mood last night means a decent number of them probably are ready to make something happen. Those 50 dissenters could easily trigger a confidence vote. But the obstacles have not changed. After the 48 MPs needed for that comes 159 needed to see off May. That’s cat-herding territory and is still too big an ask.
There is another obvious caveat too: May’s deal might yet pass. I wrote yesterday that the question of whether Brexiteers would rebel on the deal depends which Brexiteers you’re talking about, a point neatly demonstrated by the number of them who tell the Times that they would vote for Chequers through gritted teeth for fear of risking Brexit itself, as Michael Gove has urged them to this morning. They complain the ERG leadership is a “subset of a subset” of extreme opinion.
But that’s arguably all you need when you’re trying to overturn a tiny parliamentary majority. “The direction is one-way for the PM,” says one plotter. “Things are only going to get worse.” How quickly is another matter entirely.