This article originally appeared in the Sunday Telegraph.
Theresa May has survived crisis after crisis and clings to office like a limpet. This time, though, it is difficult to see any scenario in which she survives as prime minister. When you reportedly lose the confidence of your chief whip, and your de facto coalition partners, the DUP, the game is well and truly up.
In the event of ‘no deal’, literally no one thinks the Prime Minister has the vision to lead the country into the unknown. If we end up having to accept a two-year extension to Article 50, it is difficult to think of more than five Tory MPs who would conclude that she is the woman to lead further negotiations and trade talks with the EU.
The best and cleanest scenario would be for Theresa May to declare in the next two days that if MPs vote her deal through, she will immediately announce her resignation and stay on until May 22nd, to allow two months for her party to elect a new leader. She could then leave with dignity and with the knowledge that her party is just about intact. But if not, let’s look at how Theresa May might be “persuaded” to go.
Events Dear Boy…
The most likely scenario which sees Theresa May leave No10 sees events dictating what happens. If she loses the third Meaningful Vote Parliament may then take control of the process and try to impose a softer form of Brexit, involving a lengthy extension to Article 50, meaning Britain taking part in the European Parliament elections. In those circumstances all Theresa May’s red lines would then have been crossed. Alternatively, she retains control of the process and the only alternative to No Deal is to accept punitive terms imposed by the EU on April 11th. It would be the biggest national humiliation since the Suez debacle. She couldn’t survive that.
The Persons in Grey Suits
The mythical ‘men in grey suits’ could decide to pay the Prime Minister a visit as early as this week in order to explain how she’s lost the support of the parliamentary party and the party membership. If she received a deputation from the Chief whip Julian Smith, Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, Brandon Lewis, the party chairman, de facto Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington and the leader of the Lords Natalie Evans, the game would be well and truly up. However, Brandon Lewis and Natalie Evans are two of Mrs May’s strongest supporters, and David Lidington may refuse to be part of any such group, given he would likely have to step into the prime ministerial shoes, albeit temporarily.
A Cabinet Uprising
The Cabinet ought to have reached the end of its tether by now, yet none of them have had the courage to stand up to the Prime Minister’s complete refusal to tell them what her Brexit strategy is. She goes around the table asking their views but then refuses to give hers. The first they hear about a decision is via the media, by which time it’s too late to row back. There are four factions in the Cabinet – the Ultra Remainers, the May loyalists, the Brexiteers and the Weathervanes. Each faction is of more or less equal strength. It only needs two factions to combine to decide enough is enough and the Prime Minister could not continue. In theory she could sack them and replace them but she’s too weak. It would take a brave cabinet minister to raise their hand in a cabinet meeting to do the dirty deed, given that they couldn’t necessarily trust their colleagues to row in behind them, but if more than half the cabinet did, it’s something no prime minister could survive.
The Nuclear Option
If the Men in Grey Suits option or a cabinet revolt fail to persuade the Prime Minister her time is up then the chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady could press his own equivalent of the ‘red button’. Although a formal confidence vote in May’s leadership cannot in theory be held before December, he could decide to hold an indicative, non-binding vote of Tory backbenchers. Last time 37% of the parliamentary party voted against her. Few would doubt that number would now increase to more than 50%. The vote may be indicative but in the words of the famous leaflet which went to 9 million homes, Sir Graham would have to tell his flock: “I will implement what you decide”.
S*** or bust
As one cabinet minister put it to me yesterday: “We are into a s*** or bust place now. The Cabinet has got to assert itself, make a decision and run with it.” Resignations will inevitably follow any decision to go with ‘no deal’ or a ‘soft Brexit’.
No-one with any sense will predict how Theresa May will depart from No10, but however it happens, the optics of the Tory Party disposing of a second female prime minister in terrible circumstances will long stay in the mind of many voters. Whoever succeeds her will have a far more difficult job than John Major had to rebuild a divided party. This time there’s a divided country to heal too.