A version of this article first appeared in Friday’s London Evening Standard
It’s almost as if Alastair Campbell has been advising Theresa May. When Tony Blair was ever in political trouble, he adopted a “masochism” strategy. He let voters beat him up. And it worked.
Yesterday morning May decided the best way to sell her Brexit deal was to do a radio phone-in on LBC . Just over a year ago she did the same thing with me, following her disastrous conference speech. She put in a solid performance but the only thing anyone remembers from that is that she couldn’t say how she’d vote in a second referendum.
You always know when the PM is in a tricky corner because she gurns. Anything outside her comfort zone and she looks panicked. She is not a natural phone-in interlocutor because she finds spontaneity so challenging.
But this morning she came through relatively unscathed, despite facing a call from a Conservative councillor to stand down and let a Brexiteer take over. The final caller likened her to Neville Chamberlain, accusing her of selling out this country to a foreign power. #Awks.
Her only moment of hesitation was a curious one. She was repeatedly unable to rule out the possibility of a free vote on the Brexit deal, which Penny Mordaunt called for in Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. I can conceive of few circumstances in which a coherent government could allow such a thing on such a key policy. However, in these febrile political times, we should rule out nothing.
Deep discussion of free votes is irrelevant. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of mathematics can see that there is no majority in Parliament for the deal that has been struck with the EU. Unless the Prime Minister pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the Brussels summit a week on Sunday, and changes several aspects of the draft deal document, there will be at least 50 (and I suspect far more) Conservative MPs who will vote against it.
This rotten deal deserves to fail. As an ardent Brexiteer I have no hesitation in saying I would rather stay in the EU than vote for this appalling capitulation.
As if this wasn’t depressing enough for Mrs May, it was reported yesterday morning that all government whips were to report to Parliament and cancel any of the day’s constituency engagements. The most likely explanation seemed to be that Sir Graham Brady had 48 letters and a confidence vote will take place next week. Twenty four hours later, to coin a phrase, ‘nothing has changed’ and there has been no announcement,
Bizarrely, a challenge might be good news for May. She will undoubtedly win a confidence vote but the question is by how many. If fewer than 100 Tory MPs vote against her, she will be home and hosed for another year. More than 100, and it’s hard to see her lasting too much longer. The key point is that under Tory Party rules there can be no further challenge to her for another 12 months.
May will regard such a vote as an irritation and insist “nothing has changed” and that she’s getting on with delivering Brexit. The trouble is she’s trying to deliver a form of Brexit that no one is happy with. Apart from her.
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