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24 October 2018

Theresa May’s incompetence has united Tory Brexiteers and Remainers against her

Suggesting an open-ended period of transition was almost like writing the first paragraph of a letter of resignation. 

By Simon Heffer

The state of Tory feverishness in recent days was typified by a buzz around Westminster on 23 October that Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, had finally received the 48 letters needed for a vote of no confidence in Theresa May.

May’s dwindling band of supporters – mainly traditionalists who back her not because they admire her abilities, but because they feel leaders should leave at a time of their choosing rather than after a coup d’état – say she would win a vote. Perhaps she would, in terms of numbers. But in 1990 Margaret Thatcher polled 204 votes against Michael Heseltine’s 152, and was still evicted. There are several of May’s cabinet colleagues who, if she secured a majority of the parliamentary electorate but still had, say, a third of the party against her, would do what Thatcher’s did in November 1990: tell her the game was up.

This will happen suddenly if it happens at all. However, great changes occur in politics because of underlying momentum (with, in this instance, a lower case “m”). In the days since Mrs May’s embarrassing visit to Brussels in mid-October, the speed with which opposition to her from within her own party picked up has been remarkable. She designed her own misfortune: suggesting an open-ended period of transition was almost like writing the first paragraph of a letter of resignation.

To Tory Brexiteers it seemed she had gone the full Neville Chamberlain; but to Remainers her complete inability to articulate a sensible vision, or to take a decision rather than, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, kick the proverbial can down the road, appears finally to have changed minds. As the Tory MP (and ardent Remainer) Anna Soubry said in the Commons, the idea of an interminable transition in which we have willingly surrendered the right to try to influence European Commission policies is something nobody (except, it seems, May and the people of questionable merit who advise her) wants.

That May herself should have promoted such an idiotic idea suggests she had, at the time, reached such a state of panic and confusion that she was incapable of making a rational judgement; and if her advisers recommended it, she should sack them.

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What the Prime Minister should worry about now is that it is not merely the apostles of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg or the newly, and rather effectively, resurrected David Davis who have recognised this: it is an opinion increasingly expressed by those who had once endorsed her through their silence. When one hears complaints of May’s palpable lack of leadership qualities, they are voiced even more strongly by ministers than by backbenchers – and ministers are better positioned to form a judgement. Remainers now voice dissent as readily, and as pungently, as Brexiteers. May’s incompetence has united her fractious party.

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No one exemplified this better than the highly regarded MP Johnny Mercer, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, in an interview in the House magazine. Notably, he did not concentrate his fire on the ineptitude with which May has discharged the public mandate to take Britain out of the EU; he chose instead to talk about the government’s other policy failures. Mercer’s intervention was hugely significant: it alerted Tories who are not avowed Brexiteers to the fact that, when one takes the Brexit question out of the equation, there is no other obvious evidence that May is capable of doing the job of prime minister. And that means that even when Brexit is over, the party will have little idea what its purpose in government is. If her party chooses to throw her out, Brexit will be just one of the causes.

Remainers too have seats to fight at the next election: and because many represent constituencies that voted Brexit in 2016, they fear that because of their personal support for the EU they will have a harder job retaining them. The last thing they want is May, who proved herself the worst campaigning Tory leader in living memory at last year’s election, to be in charge when the next contest comes. Backbenchers openly talk about the need for her to go, which itself passes a comment on the quality of the whips’ office and its ability to exert discipline over an increasingly angry and disillusioned party. The old saw about loyalty being the Conservatives’ secret weapon no longer applies in parliamentary ranks that, after their bruising in the 2017 election, have haemorrhaged respect for May.

The most active animus against her comes from Brexiteers, because of what they see as her belief that negotiation is synonymous with concession, and her thinly disguised embarrassment that Britain is leaving the bloc. They also wonder why she ever sought a job whose principal responsibility, when she accepted it, was to lead Britain out of the EU, a policy with which she, as a Remainer, manifestly disagreed.

They have long been convinced she is not up to it, and the fact that the Irish border question remains unresolved over two years after the referendum proves their point; but until now they lacked a plausible replacement. However, with Boris Johnson discredited and loathed by many on the Tory benches, not least because of his ill-judged posturing and behaviour at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham (and also word that he has been grandly offering cabinet jobs to potential supporters), and David Davis improbably born again, that has changed.

Yet what one suspects will probably finish Theresa May will be any further refusal by Brussels to agree to her weakly formulated and feebly presented Brexit plans. At that point, Britain’s only chance of having a serious negotiation is by using a serious negotiator. It’s time for her party to seize control. 

This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash