There is a clear path to Brexit, but no one knows what it is – least of all Theresa May

“The government is like a doughnut,” says one MP. “It has no centre”.

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Politicians like a murder mystery as much as anyone else, and Westminster is now the setting of a particularly compelling one. The deceased: the first Conservative parliamentary majority since 1992, cut down in the prime of its life. The cause of death: the general election of 2017. The chief suspects: Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ Australian campaign chief, and Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff, who is now a newspaper columnist.

This is perhaps unfair: any defeat has many authors. In this instance, however, the apportioning of blame has become a proxy battle about the future direction of the party after May quits, as she almost certainly will before the next election.

Many MPs who accept that Crosby bears little responsibility for the 2017 calamity nonetheless don’t want “Crosbyism” – an ever harsher tone on immigration, continuing transfers of income and assets from the young to the old, and an almost entirely negative offer to the country – to emerge as the party’s dominant creed.

While there is little appetite to rehabilitate Nick Timothy, they don’t want his failure to bury Mayism along with May. (Fiona Hill, Timothy’s former co-chief of staff, who was initially the subject of vicious briefings, has now faded from view because she does not represent a side in an ongoing debate.)

What is going on inside the party is particularly painful for Theresa May, as every­one in Westminster knows that the rot started at the top, not least because most of the back-room team at Conservative campaign headquarters was unchanged from the successful 2015 election. May set the Tory majority ablaze. The question of who handed her the matches is a secondary one.

The reputations of the Prime Minister and Nick Timothy aside, Mayism is in a healthier state than its ideological creators. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was despised inside No 10, remains at the Treasury, but he is no longer truly in power. Witness Downing Street’s announcement that the public-sector pay cap will end next year, with police officers and prison wardens the first in line for uplifts – and without any indication of how the government plans to pay for the rise.

Nurses and other public-sector workers are also expected to receive similar settlements during the autumn. The “magic money tree”, once derided, is now flourishing, with no one at the top of government able to exert any control over whether it bears fruit. “The government is like a doughnut: it has no centre,” is how one senior Conservative put it to me.

There is now a new and unexpected threat to the good health of Mayism and the temporary survival of the Prime Minister: validation. One reason that May went to the country earlier than expected was that she feared the government’s small majority made navigating Brexit an impossible task. Now she is being proved right.

There is a healthy majority in parliament for Brexit to go ahead, because of  the timidity of Conservative Remainers and the seven long-standing Leave-supporting Labour MPs: Kate Hoey, Frank Field, Dennis Skinner, Ronnie Campbell, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann and Graham Stringer.

At the vote, in the early hours of 12 September, the government’s majority was further padded by abstentions, including that of Labour’s Caroline Flint, increasingly one of the most strident pro-Leave MPs on the Labour side.

So, the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will incorporate EU law into our statutes, comfortably passed its second reading. The difficulty is that while parliament can agree on the necessity of leaving the EU, there are wide differences of opinion, on all sides, about what our final exit should look like.

Strikingly, all the Labour Leavers happily fell in behind Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment, which criticised May’s decision to award her ministers vast “Henry VIII powers” to make and alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny. If Labour Eurosceptics are prepared to quibble with the details of  the bill, it greatly reduces the number of Conservative MPs who need to rebel for any measure to fail. Already the number of Conservative signatories on some amendments exceeds what is necessary to defeat the government. At committee stage, the government will have to make concessions.

May does have a clear path to Brexit, which is politically painless, at least if you ignore for the moment the potential for a backlash from newspapers and voters. She could tilt towards Conservative Remainers, safe in the knowledge that committed Eurosceptics will have to back her – or risk another election and confront the spectre of a Corbyn premiership.

Also, the promised “meaningful vote” on the final deal will be no such thing. Even the most diehard Remainer will have to vote for whatever is on offer, no matter how “hard” or “clean”, if the alternative is no deal at all. (Don’t believe the government’s bluster: no deal would be catastrophic, with holidaymakers stranded on the European continent and queues of lorries backed up at the Channel ports.)

The problem is that a smooth Brexit requires a more conciliatory politician than 10 Downing Street’s current occupant. And, in any case, May is only guaranteed to remain in place while she retains the trust and support of her party’s most devout Leavers.

The early election was the product of two things: a dream and a nightmare. May’s dream was to write herself into the history books with a landslide victory over Corbyn’s Labour. The nightmare was of losing control of the Brexit process. The latter possibility has only become more vivid.

May’s tragedy, however, is that even as events prove that an early election was theoretically the right call, her handling of the campaign ensures that the next political death will be that of her career. 

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 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem