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Brexit 0, Reality 1

At last, after another turbulent week in politics, Theresa May has called the bluff of the Brexiteers. If they want to topple her, they need two things – a convincing candidate and a workable alternative plan.

In the late afternoon of Monday 9 July, Theresa May walked directly from the Commons chamber – where she had delivered a statement on Brexit, and faced the mockery of a confident Jeremy Corbyn – to a meeting organised by the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. Within minutes, journalists outside the room heard the sound of tables being banged – not in frustration, but approval.

At the end of 24 hours in which two leading Brexiteers had resigned from her cabinet, it was a remarkable scene. Even more unexpectedly, the Prime Minister smiled to the press waiting outside beforehand and spoke with remarkable assurance to backbenchers, three of whom told us that they had never seen her so relaxed.

Why was the notoriously shy and awkward May so unusually voluble? Perhaps it was simply relief – she would no longer have to face the regular explosions and tactical leaks designed to bolster the leadership ambitions of Boris Johnson, her former foreign secretary. His narcissism and bluster were apparent even in the manner of his resignation: the letter he sent to No 10 contained several paragraphs about the EU’s alleged indifference to the deaths of London cyclists when deciding lorry regulations, which was exactly the kind of spurious scaremongering that made his name as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the 1990s.

It was accompanied by a posed photograph of him, pen in hand, at a grand wooden desk. Although the ultra-loyal Telegraph duly splashed the picture across its front page, it was notable that the rest of the media – for so long in thrall to the man they chummily called “Boris” – was in a much less indulgent mood. Perhaps Johnson had written two letters, some joked: one explaining why he was resigning, and one explaining that he was staying. When Johnson’s ally and fellow Tory MP Zac Goldsmith tweeted that “Boris could literally throw himself in front of a bus to save a child, and his opponents would still accuse him of being opportunistic”, the reply came back: “Well, he’s already lied in front of one.”

As for David Davis, he was reportedly furious at how May choreographed the Chequers summit on 6 July. The Prime Minister used tactics that she had perfected during the coalition years to freeze out the Liberal Democrats from decisions. She carefully restricted the flow of information to ministers, who received the relevant documents only the night before. Mobile phones were confiscated to prevent leaks; this had the happy side-effect that her cabinet ministers could not call their special advisers for help with the small print. This was a particular problem for Davis. Even his strongest allies concede that he is not a natural master of details. That caused repeated friction with Downing Street, because he would often only realise he was opposed to specific proposals or concessions long after they had been agreed or even announced.

Last summer, he strongly objected to the timetable of the negotiations – Brussels wanted the exit deal agreed first, before discussing future trading arrangements – only after Article 50 was triggered and no leverage was available. Earlier this year he attempted to block a guarantee on the Irish border, which stated that no new infrastructure would be imposed, only after several ministers had endorsed it in public. And then, finally, he resigned over the so-called Chequers plan, even though it was the only viable way to fulfil the promises made not only by the Prime Minister but by Davis himself during the referendum campaign and afterwards.

Notably, neither Davis’s resignation letter nor Johnson’s offered an alternative vision or plan for leaving the EU. Their departures from the cabinet were augmented by several from the lower ranks: junior Brexit minister Steve Baker swiftly followed Davis out of the door, while Chris Green, a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) in the Department of Transport, quit after May’s meeting with the 1922 Committee. Two vice-chairs, Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield, resigned on Tuesday: the former has a majority of just 1,057 in a Midlands seat that voted Leave by 70.9 per cent.

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The fear of voters felt by MPs in Brexit-supporting marginals is just one current in the Conservative Party, however. Another is the widespread (if usually concealed) frustration at the antics of the hard-line Eurosceptics. When Chris Green tweeted his resignation letter, fellow Tory MP Simon Hart replied with another tweet: “Your [sic] a pps Chris. It is not relevant and nobody gives a fuck. Apart from me obviously.” When challenged by another MP, Hart responded: “The stakes are high, and destabilisation (however honourable the motives) ultimately self defeating. It’s also incredibly frustrating to those of us who have remained silent on these issues for so long.” It was a rare insight into a common sentiment shared by much of the Parliamentary Conservative Party: that the Brexit ultras, by being noisy and perpetually obstructive, often get the attention of the leadership and the press at the expense of the quietly loyal. Even within their own party, Davis and Johnson have made many enemies; there was notably little mourning at their departures.

If we compare the events of this political week to a football match, as we must in a World Cup summer, what would the result be? As Theresa May posed for photographs with her new cabinet – after Dominic Raab was installed as Davis’s replacement, and Jeremy Hunt moved from the Department of Health to the Foreign Office with minimal fuss – the scoreline was obvious. Hard Brexit 0, Reality 1.

This was not a foregone conclusion. The night before the Chequers summit, Davis and Johnson had been joined by five fellow Leavers at a meeting in the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The others were House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Environment Secretary Michael Gove – all of whom eventually decided to stay in the cabinet.

They acknowledged there was no alternative plan that both allowed frictionless trade between Britain and the rest of Europe and kept an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The version of Brexit promised during the referendum campaign, it turned out, could be defended by a pliable think tank or advanced in a newspaper column, but it could not be reconciled with the United Kingdom’s security, economic or political interests.

Davis and Johnson are now reaping the consequences of their own bluster. Davis’s July 2016 prediction that “within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete, and therefore before anything material has changed, we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU” has been proved ludicrously false. His assertion that German car-makers would batter down Angela Merkel’s door insisting that she capitulate to Britain’s demands was incorrect. Johnson, having stood in front of a bus promising an extra £350m a week for the NHS, did successfully lobby for higher health service funding. However, the so-called Brexit dividend was roundly mocked. No serious economist could be found to back up the claim that Brexit would boost the economy in the short term.

 Boris Johnson and David Davis at Theresa May’s speech to the 2017 Conservative party conference. Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images

At their meeting on the eve of the Chequers summit, the smarter Brexiteers also realised something else: that the Conservatives are now seen as the party of Brexit, and their continued grip on power depends on not destabilising the British economy and alienating the business community. By accepting the re-imposition of collective cabinet responsibility, the Leavers’ political future is tied to whatever deal the government can secure.

For that reason, immediately after the summit, Gove and Leadsom (as well as James Cleverly, the party’s media-friendly deputy chairman, who was not present at Chequers) agreed to appear on television and radio to defend the accord. “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it,” ran May’s famous soundbite. Her political future, and that of the party she leads, depends on this.

The history of Britain’s negotiation with the European Union is one of “crunch” decisions repeatedly postponed. After surviving a bloody week at home, the Prime Minister now has to take her plan to Europe. The Chequers accord is full of concessions to reality, although more will be required to pass muster with the European Commission’s negotiators. The “facilitated customs arrangement” is as close to a customs union as it is possible to be without using the name. Free movement of people might be ending, but there are suggestions that Britain will offer generous conditions for the “movement of labour”.

The free movement of goods, it is hoped, will remain largely in place. There is still plenty of fudge which may or may not be clarified by the white paper, due next week – such as the future arrangement for the “passporting” of financial services.

If European negotiators and the EU27 agree to a deal, the moment of maximum danger for May will then arrive: the “meaningful vote” in parliament. This presents a dizzying matrix of possibilities.

For the Brexit ultras, a stark question looms. Are they so committed to a harder Brexit than May is offering that they are willing to sabotage their own leader and rebel against the whip, in the full knowledge that could trigger a political and economic crisis, and lead to a government led by Jeremy Corbyn? Already, a few have indicated that they are, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the hard-line European Research Group (ERG), and maverick backbencher Andrew Bridgen. The latter has also said he submitted a letter of no confidence in May to 1922 Committee chair Graham Brady; 48 are needed to trigger a ballot. The ERG’s well-briefed plan to force May to change her mind, with a resignation every day, illustrates their weakness. If the Prime Minister doesn’t change her mind, they have no way to make her, and no alternative plan to replace hers with.

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The Prime Minister has said she would contest any no-confidence vote – and she would almost certainly survive one, as half of the 316-strong parliamentary party would have to vote against May in order for her to be removed. (It is often noted that there are 80 members of the ERG, but even then, many backbenchers simply signed up to the group on arrival in parliament, much like students joining a poetry society in freshers’ week.)

The exact number of Tory rebels is crucial, given the hung parliament and May’s working majority of just 13. As it stands, Labour will vote against any deal for reasons of straightforward opposition, and because it will undoubtedly fail its “six tests”, which include delivering the “exact same benefits” as single market membership. So will the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Green MP Caroline Lucas.

It is possible but unlikely that one or two Labour Brexiteers might vote with the government, and that Ken Clarke, the only Tory to vote against triggering Article 50, could rebel again. That puts the final tally on a knife edge. Downing Street is alive to the possibility that passing the final deal with the votes of Conservative MPs alone may no longer be possible. Earlier this week, opposition MPs were invited to attend a briefing on Brexit by Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff. The first surprise was their discovery on arrival that the briefing was being conducted not by Barwell, a former MP, but David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as well as May’s de facto deputy.

Lidington was an astute choice – he is well-liked by Labour, while Liberal Democrat survivors of the coalition regard him as a straight bat (he had the fraught role of Europe minister throughout the period). Jonathan Black, a senior civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union, was on hand to address technical questions. However, the meeting was overshadowed by two things: the hot weather and Johnson’s resignation. It was uncomfortably warm and no one had thought to provide any refreshments, “not even tap water”, as one MP complained afterwards. The mood was listless even before the news that Johnson had resigned flashed up on the phones of those attending, severely disrupting proceedings.

Some MPs found it helpful to be able to clarify their queries with an official present, but it was obvious to those in the room that the government was not able or willing to offer the level of concessions necessary to win over opposition MPs to the deal. (At a bare minimum, wavering Labour MPs would look for the government to offer continued single market membership and a customs union; after all, they know that voting with the Conservatives will be regarded as an unforgivable betrayal by many party activists.) If no opposition MPs can be won over, the result of the collision between reality and the Brexiteers might still be an exit from the EU without any deal at all, rather than a softer Brexit. Yet May herself is in higher spirits than she has been at least since her general election humbling – and perhaps at any point in her premiership.

For Labour, this week’s crisis put the party in a position where its leadership is most comfortable: talking not about whether Brexit was a good or a bad decision, but about how the Conservatives are making such a mess of it all.

In a general election, Labour would hope to repeat its mantra of 2017: accepting the referendum result while promising to deliver Brexit in a “fairer” way. Of course, a “jobs first Brexit” (Labour’s campaign slogan ) is just as fanciful as Davis’s pledges, but for now Labour has one crucial advantage: it is in opposition and doesn’t have to deliver on its promises. Yet away from Westminster, the chill of Brexit is already being felt: in the warnings from the few business leaders brave enough to say out loud what most of them are thinking; in forgotten policy areas such as housing, where the eighth minister since 2010 has just been appointed; in the stagnant wages and living standards that will not be magically solved by a new era of “Global Britain”.

On the international stage, too, Britain is diminished: foreign newspapers now write about the “turbulence” and the “ungovernable” nature of our politics. Johnson’s resignation came hours before he was due to host a conference with Balkan states aspiring to EU membership. “We’re still waiting for our host…” complained Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth when Johnson failed to turn up.

The Tory psychodrama also pushed the death of a British national in Salisbury from exposure to a nerve agent down the news agenda, and Home Secretary Sajid Javid faced a near-empty Commons chamber when he gave his statement on the subject. Britain’s governing party is tearing itself apart at a time when the world is in serious need of outward-looking politicians. One Foreign Office official, contemplating the mess left behind by Johnson, texted the New Statesman a simple question: “Will we ever recover?” The official meant the Foreign Office and its standing within Whitehall. He could have been speaking more generally about the condition of Britain.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce