This article first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph.
Well she’s still there, clinging to office like a limpet, defying her cabinet and soldiering on unabashed. Theresa May is effectively using the national crisis she created to tell her fractious party ‘stick with nurse for fear of worse’. Could it really be worse than this?
This was the week when the Conservative Party snapped. The sense of loyalty party members traditionally feel towards their leader cracked. Social media was full of pictures of torn-up party membership cards. Tory MPs vented their frustrations to an ever-willing media.
Things got so bad that Ann Widdecombe told LBC Radio on Friday that having voted Conservative at every election since 1970, even she had reached the end of her tether and would now seriously consider voting for Nigel Farage’s new insurgent Brexit Party. She’s far from alone.
The dam finally burst when Theresa May appeared to abandon yet another of her red lines and decided that the only way to get her ‘deal’ over the line was to court Jeremy Corbyn, a man she has previously described as a dangerous Marxist and unit for government. Had these talks been ongoing over the last two years, there might have been a chance that something could emerge from them, but it’s too late. David Davis tried to convince the PM to allow cross party talks right at the start, but she vetoed it. Instead, he made sure that Sir Keir Starmer was kept abreast of developments and was instrumental in him becoming a privy counsellor so he could see secret papers. But when Davis resigned, these talks came to an end.
This week, Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary told Theresa May to her face in Cabinet that the whole idea of talking to Corbyn was preposterous and “ridiculous”. A majority of her cabinet was against what she proposed yet she went ahead anyway, and, as usual, caved in to the minority of Remain supporting cabinet ministers.
Tory MPs and party activists were up in arms because they knew that if these talks amounted to anything the result would be a betrayal of Brexit. The only possible conclusion would be that Theresa May would be abandoning one of her key red lines and agree to Britain remaining in a Customs Union. Her negotiating team with Labour contained a single Brexit supporter – Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay. Led by three ultra-Remainers, it was clear to Tory MPs that that the writing was on the wall. The fact that Business Secretary Greg Clark was on the team, rather than Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary told us all we needed to know. The only person to gain from these talks – whether they end up succeeding or failing – is Jeremy Corbyn.
Party members who had been told by the Prime Minister on hundreds of occasions that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ were left feeling duped. They trusted Theresa May to keep her word, but instead she effectively told them: “It’s not me, it’s you”. Brexit supporting Tories were being told that they were too thick to understand the nuances, and it should be left to the party elites to sort it out. Tory MPs were left feeling blackmailed: “Support my deal or get no Brexit at all,” was the message conveyed. MP after MP cracked, yet it still wasn’t enough. But this week, the talks with Corbyn pushed some MPs back the other way.
There has always been a residual respect for Theresa May. Tory activists would report back that on the doorstep people admired the PM’s “resilience” and “tenacity”. I’d get that on my radio show too. But that stopped this week. “Tenacity” has turned into “Obstinacy”. “Resilience” became “Betrayal”.
It now seems that the can will be kicked further down the road and Article 50 will be extended even further, either until the end of June, or more likely – as the EU is demanding – for at least another year. This means European elections will take place in Britain on May 23rd. May will be a catastrophic month for the Conservative Party. The local elections will likely show a net loss of hundreds of Tory councillors, who will lose through no fault of their own. I did a random phone-around of Tory MPs, candidates and activists yesterday. With the exception of 1 MP I found not a single one of them who would be voting Conservative in the European elections. To a man and woman, they all said they would be voting for The Brexit Party. Interestingly none mentioned UKIP, a party which is now identified with rampant Islamophobia, rather than Euroscepticism.
The European Elections will be a kind of second referendum. The political classes will be sent a very clear message by the electorate: You have betrayed us, and we won’t stand for it. Assuming UKIP and The Brexit Party don’t split the pro-Brexit vote, Nigel Farage could sweep the electoral board.
When Nick Boles crossed the floor of the House on Tuesday, he described the Cabinet as “the worst in one hundred years”. It’s certainly the most supine. Time after time the Cabinet allows the Prime Minister to get away with blue murder. They then brief the media with their annoyance and complaints, yet by going along with her, they have dipped their hands in the blood of Brexit betrayal. The day of reckoning is not far away. The putative leadership candidates, like Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock must surely realise that their candidacies will never get off the ground if they put up with this behaviour from the Prime Minister for much longer.
The only people to gain from the chaos of the last week are Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and David Davis. Johnson articulated the thoughts of the whole party when he accused Theresa May of “entrusting the final handling of Brexit to Labour,” and made clear he could never countenance Britain staying in a Customs Union. It was perhaps the moment when Boris became a serious player again.
I had thought the week that has just past would be the crunch one for Theresa May, but it is in the next seven days that the day of reckoning will beckon – not just for the Prime Minister, but for the whole government. We’ll find out whether the ‘Pizza Club’ of Brexit supporting cabinet ministers will finally grow a pair and walk out of the government as a bloc. We’ll find out if Sir Graham Brady will don his grey suit and accompany the Chief Whip into Number Ten to tell Theresa May that the Parliamentary Party has lost confidence in the Prime Minister and she needs to realise that the game is up.
Something has changed in the last seven days. We can all sense it. The next seven days are going to be ugly, but they may determine whether there is anything to save from the wreckage the Prime Minister has created, or whether the Party splits are deepened. If they are, the number of Tory Party members cutting up their membership cards will turn into a flood - unless of course they realise that by getting the scissors out, they forfeit their right to vote for a successor to Theresa May.