“The crazies” might not have removed Theresa May, but they block her path at every turn

The Prime Minister survived her meeting with the 1922 Committee. But at what price?


Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Theresa May is going nowhere – in both senses. The Prime Minister addressed Conservative backbenchers at the 1922 Committee last night and, far from triggering a leadership crisis, it presaged an outbreak of Tory unity. (Patrick, who was eavesdropping in the committee corridor, has more from the meeting.)

But what’s the price of survival? To even get this far, May has had to double down on promises to her party that cannot be reconciled with either her negotiating partners in the EU27 or command the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament.

Shortly after the election, one Conservative backbencher, who is usually a pretty reliable barometer of backbench opinion, sketched out a path to a Brexit deal. The view of the Commons, they said, was clear on what Brexit it wanted: one that retained the UK's membership of the single market and customs union, a Brexit that had the benefit of honouring the United Kingdom's strategic objectives as far as the Irish border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the bargain. Sooner or later that will would assert itself – provided, they warned, that “the crazies” in their own party didn't come for Theresa May before Parliament was able to assert itself. 

“The crazies” might not have removed Theresa May, but they block her path at every turn. She can’t pass their preferred loose high regulatory freedom, low market access Canada-style deal because that would either mean a hard border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. They won’t accept an arrangement that keeps only Northern Ireland in the regulatory orbit of the European Union, as that has implications for the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. But they won’t accept an arrangement that does that for the whole United Kingdom, as that isn’t a real Brexit as far as they’re concerned. They won’t even accept a transition that extends past the next election, which might deliver a parliamentary majority for the Brexit they crave, as they fear transition will last forever. So what’s left? The answer, unless the politics shift, is for the United Kingdom to leave without a deal. 

In those circumstances, that it was Theresa May, not David Davis or Boris Johnson in charge when the crisis hit is unlikely to provide anyone much comfort. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.