Theresa May is the Brexiteers’ human shield - they’d be even weaker without her

The removal of the Prime Minister would not create a majority in parliament or in the EU for Leavers’ political demands. 

NS

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In June 2017, a few days before her electoral humbling, Theresa May declared: “You can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit”. Her premiership depends on proving herself wrong.

The Prime Minister might have been a reluctant Remainer but she is a still more reluctant Leaver. Even now, May refuses to say she would vote for the Sisyphean task of Brexit.

Tory Leavers only have themselves to blame for this fate. In the 2016 Conservative leadership election, not one but three of their candidates (Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom) self-imploded. After May’s calamitous loss of the Tories’ majority, no one sought to deprive her of No 10.

For nearly two years, the Prime Minister’s Faustian pact with the Brexiteers has held. But rarely has it appeared more threadbare. The Brexit “war cabinet” has so far distinguished itself by waging war on May’s preferred “customs partnership”. Boris Johnson - in a rolling demonstration of how unsackable he is - has publicly derided the Prime Minister’s policy as “crazy”. Leavers privately threaten a confidence vote in May should she refuse to comply with their demands.

Brexiteers assail the Prime Minister for her “indecision” and, like Marxists denouncing the Soviet Union, insist that the problem lies only with the practice, not the theory.

Yet Leavers would be weaker, rather than stronger, without their human shield. May’s torturous manner reflects the necessity to find a deal that both parliament and the EU will approve. This task would be harder still were Downing Street occupied by a Leaver. Tory Remainers who reluctantly side with the government in votes would feel no compunction to do so if Michael Gove, Boris Johnson or David Davis were prime minister. And the EU would feel even less goodwill towards a true Brexit believer.

The strongest charges against May are not ones that Leavers are well-placed to level. The Prime Minister was reckless to trigger Article 50 in March 2017 - before the cabinet had agreed its stance - but Brexiteers accused her of sloth, rather than haste. May squandered the Tories’ majority in an unnecessary election - but it was her embrace of “hard Brexit” that prompted a Remain rebellion. When Conservative MPs urged her to retreat following the result, Leavers implored her to defy a newly hung parliament (which has defied them in turn). Only those who support the apocalyptic option of “no deal” propose a clear alternative. 

And so, in an act of Brexitentialist theatre, the deadlock endures; the cabinet perpetually argues over options already deemed mutually unworkable by the EU. But Brexiteers should not mistake Theresa May for the cause of their woes - she is merely the symptom.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.