“It wasn’t Daniella in the lion’s den, it was more like a petting zoo.” That was how Michael Fabricant summed up tonight’s meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs to the dozens of lobby journalists who had waited the best part of an hour in the hope of not hearing that line.
After days of speculation that a coup against Theresa May could well be imminent, tonight’s meeting was expected to be a crucial juncture: the time for rebels to put up or shut up, the moment that would determine whether a confidence vote in the prime minister would finally be triggered.
Instead, the prime minister’s audience with her party followed the same predictable script that it has since her calamitous performance in last year’s election. May spoke convincingly about the need for a good Brexit deal and her desire to deliver it, and her MPs, for the most part, listened hospitably and gave her a warm reception before engaging in a game of competitive loyalty for the aid of the press pack afterwards.
In other words: unity broke out. If this is the killing zone that the Sunday papers have been hyperventilating about, then the Tories are killing their leader very softly indeed. And, indeed, the consensus among MPs is that those very same anonymous attacks on the prime minister from the most strident Brexiteers have bought her time and goodwill from the majority, whatever their theological position on Europe (most questions to May were prefixed with expressions of sympathy, Amber Rudd revealed afterwards). Weary backbenchers expected nothing else. “Twas ever thus,” one moaned afterwards. Despite the dismal state of Brexit, a critical mass of Conservative MPs knows that displacing its leader will do nothing to change it.
None of this is to say that there were no dissenting voices in the room. The problem, however, is that they are the very same dissenting voices we hear constantly. It isn’t news that Brexiteers like Andrew Bridgen, Nadine Dorries and Edward Leigh – all of whom asked hostile questions this evening – don’t like what May is doing. Their attacks do not reflect anything close to mainstream opinion on the prime minister’s immediate-term job security even within the European Research Group, whose leadership has urged against toppling May in recent days.
Indeed, a decent rule to follow as far as Westminster goes is that the likelihood of a cause to succeed is in inverse proportion to the prominence of Bridgen, whose toxicity cannot be underestimated, in promoting it. Despite the continuing unease over her direction of travel on Brexit, May is still safe enough. The overwhelming likelihood is that the real reckoning with her party will only come once she has struck a deal with Brussels. Only then might her score on the Bridgen Index slip into dangerous territory.