Is this death? Conservative whips have been asked to cancel their plans and head back to Westminster, with the general expectation that it must mean that 15 per cent of the Conservative Parliamentary Party (48 MPs) have sent letters calling for a no confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership.
The well-founded conventional wisdom is that May will win any confidence vote as while the Brexiteers have the numbers to trigger a confidence vote, they don’t have the support of anything like half the parliamentary party. That’s true, but – as I explained in more detail back in October – while when I pick up the phone, most Tory MPs say, “no way, not now” if you suggest that May might go, they also know that under party rules, if May wins a confidence vote she cannot face another one for a year. There is a huge reluctance to allow the May era to drag on until the end of 2019. I think James Forsyth has the right of it this morning: yes May ought to win a confidence vote. But her chances of defeat are pretty high if enough MPs decide getting rid of May early is a price worth paying to avoid being stuck with her indefinitely.
As far as the bigger story – can May’s agreement with the European Union pass parliament? – goes, whatever happens, the Prime Minister is well adrift of safety. The number of resignations from the frontbench yesterday alone was enough to wipe out the Conservative-DUP majority, before you remember that the DUP have already vowed to vote against the deal as it stands and that committed Brexiteers and Remainers on the backbenches alike have, similarly, promised to vote against it.
That means – and apologies for going over old ground – that Labour MPs, even those who have been considering voting for the deal to prevent a no-deal exit, are even more unlikely to do so. Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell, usually on the top of any list of possible rebels, both signalled they will vote against the deal in the Commons yesterday, while James Frith, another plausible Labour vote, has told constituents he will vote against it. A fourth MP explained the thinking to me yesterday: “I’m happy to sacrifice my career to prevent no deal – I’m not going to sacrifice my career so May loses by ten votes not 20″.
That holds even though May’s own chances have been given a boost by Michael Gove’s decision to stay in the cabinet, even though he will not be taking the cursed role of Brexit Secretary. Downing Street regards him as the one minister they cannot afford to lose if May is to survive. They might be right. The problem is, if we crash out without a deal, I don’t think most people will take comfort from the fact that it was May not Dominic Raab at the helm when it happened.