Are these the last days of Theresa May? This morning’s papers are full of stories of plots and ultimatums to the Prime Minister unless she changes her Brexit strategy, whether from her Scottish MPs over any extension of the transition period due to concerns over fisheries policy, from her Brexiteer MPs over the backstop or from her Cabinet over practically everything.
All this before the Budget next Monday, when Philip Hammond is going to have to find some way to pay for the extra cash for the NHS and Universal Credit all while keeping to May’s pledge that debt will continue to fall as a share of GDP. So added to all May’s Brexit woes, a row over tax rises could be coming down the track.
Of course, the PM’s position has been perilous for a very long time – in fact, when you remember that her period of hegemony ran from July 2016 to June 2017, she’s actually been under threat for more of her premiership than she hasn’t. But just because you roll heads 36 times in a row doesn’t mean your chances of rolling tails aren’t 50/50 on roll 37, and May’s luck could well be running out.
But while May shares a good size of the blame for the mess that the Conservative Party are in, it’s not all her fault by any means and none of those problems will go away if May is replaced or changes tack to win over her internal opponents in the European Research Group.
Ireland has a veto over the end state and only an indefinite and legally binding backstop for the island of Ireland will do if any deal is to be signed off. It’s true to say that no deal also means a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it’s also true that it will always been in the political interests of whoever is in office in Ireland for a hard border to be imposed as a result of no deal rather than for the Irish government to acquiesce in the creation of one through a EU-UK treaty.
The DUP can bring the Conservative government to an early end so they, too, have a de facto veto over any deal that creates barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. But the only UK-wide solution – for the backstop to encompass the whole of the United Kingdom – is nothing doing with pro-Brexit Conservative MPs who don’t want an indefinite backstop. It’s also politically tricky with many EU member states, who don’t want the default outcome of the talks to be a UK-wide backstop, which many regard as a threat to the sanctity of single market. (The only reason why it is acceptable on the Irish border is because Ireland is still a member state and because the Irish border was both the location and the cause of political violence within living memory.)
Added to that, the Conservative parliamentary party seems to be undergoing a similar psychological journey to the one that Steve van Riel described during the 2015 Labour leadership election: that groups of any kind tend to reach a more extreme position the longer an issue is debated. Brexiteers who spent 20 years saying they wanted a Norway style deal now talk of Norway as a betrayal. Leavers who cheerily talked about making Northern Ireland into its own customs area before Brexit now talk of the backstop as a constitutional betrayal. And Conservative Remainers who only reluctantly backed an In vote to avoid the political upheaval of negotiating Brexit, or the loss of David Cameron, now call for a referendum re-run and privately flirt with the idea of a new party.
Some of that is May’s fault, yes. But none of it is going to go away if she does and all of it makes the prospect of reaching a Brexit deal considerably less likely.