Britain’s government slides into chaos

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NOBODY CAN accuse Theresa May of an unwillingness to repeat herself. The woman who said, again and again, that “Brexit means Brexit” is now telling Britain that her version of Brexit is the only version worth having. This morning the prime minister spent three hours extolling her deal to the House of Commons. This evening she spent a mercifully shorter period addressing the country via a press conference. Mrs May claims that her version of Brexit does two hard-to-deliver things. It respects the result of the 2016 referendum by taking back control of Britain’s borders, ending the free movement of people. But it does so in a responsible way by ensuring frictionless trade with the EU. 

Mrs May is determined to talk to as many audiences as possible rather than just, as has often been her wont in the past, playing to Conservative MPs. Her speech in Parliament was addressed as much to Labour MPs as to Tories. Her press conference was intended to take the message to the country: her calculation is that the best way to bring wavering MPs onside is to address their constituents who are worried about their jobs and who, more than anything else, want the government to get Brexit over and done with. Mrs May took every opportunity to present herself as the grown-up in the room. Rather than crackpot policies such as leaving without a deal or having a second referendum, Mrs May claims to offer a realistic solution to a difficult problem.

Her press conference came after one of the most dramatic days in British politics in decades. At 9am Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, resigned on the grounds that he couldn’t bring himself to sell an agreement with “fatal flaws”. He is the second person in five months to resign from that job. A little later Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, quit. She is the eighth cabinet secretary to resign in the past year. During the morning two junior ministers and two parliamentary private secretaries resigned—and most Westminster-watchers expect more to go in the next few days. 

During her three-hour ordeal before the House Mrs May was confronted with opposition to her deal from every shade of opinion. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, denounced her deal as a “huge and damaging failure” and an “indefinite half-way house”. Nigel Dodds, the leader in Westminster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), accused her of betraying Northern Ireland and “choosing subjection”. Conservative Leavers were incandescent. Sir Bill Cash accused her of “broken promises”, “failed negotiations” and “abject capitulation to the EU”. But Tory Remainers were equally unreconciled to the deal. Anna Soubry and Justine Greening pooh-poohed it and made the case for a second referendum. At 11.30am Chris Leslie, a Labour MP, noted that “we’ve talked for an hour and no one has offered their support to the prime minister.”

With the Labour Party, the DUP, the Scottish Nationalists, the Lib Dems and a phalanx of Tory MPs ranged against her (84 of them, according to Mark Francois, a Conservative), it is hard to see how she can get her Brexit deal through the Commons. Mrs May can talk over Parliament to the nation as much as she likes. She can raise the spectre of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit or a betrayal of the referendum. She can bribe and bully members of her party. But the parliamentary arithmetic looks impossible. 

At the same time Mrs May faces a growing rebellion within her own party. Shortly after lunch Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group and a man who, hitherto, has always proclaimed that he wants to change the leader’s policy not the leader, said that he was sending in a letter calling for a confidence vote on Mrs May. The Conservative Party’s rules dictate that it must hold a leadership election if Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, receives letters demanding a leadership election from 15% of the party’s MPs (which currently means 48 of them). Mr Rees-Mogg’s intervention makes it more likely that more Brexiteers will send in letters. And today’s general chaos also makes it more likely that middle-of-the-road MPs might have had enough of Mrs May’s leadership. Everybody agrees that she is a dutiful politician. But she is also an incompetent one who has brought much of this misery upon herself. She triggered the Article 50 exit process before Britain was ready, laid down red lines that turned pink and spent months negotiating a deal that fell apart on its first contact with political reality. 

Mrs May could therefore soon find herself confronted with a leadership challenge. The most likely challengers to are two Leave-voters, Mr Raab and Michael Gove, and two Remain-voters, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. Messrs Raab and Gove might be able to say that as long-time Leavers they are best positioned to deliver a real Brexit. Mr Raab is probably in the stronger position: he can claim that he resigned on principle as soon as he saw that Mrs May’s Brexit didn’t really mean Brexit, whereas Mr Gove has remained close to the prime minister. Messrs Javid and Hunt can claim that they are hard-headed realists who can bring the two sides of the party together behind Brexit. 

A leadership election would be embarrassing as well as bloody. The party would spend weeks tearing itself apart when it ought to be grappling with the most complicated bit of statecraft in a generation. It would destroy what little credibility it still has with voters. Young people in particular are already furious with the Tory party for dividing the country over Brexit. They will be more furious still if the party abandons itself entirely to civil war. 

It is hard not to despair about the state of British politics. Mrs May’s Brexit deal clearly offers a worse outcome than the status quo, including an obligation to obey the EU’s rules for the foreseeable future without any say over what those rules should be. Yet for all this awfulness, today’s debate in Parliament was surprising. Mrs May gave one of the best parliamentary performances of her career. She laid out the case for her Brexit deal with admirable vigour (indeed, remarkable vigour, given that she spent most of yesterday trying to sell it to a reluctant cabinet). Jeremy Corbyn also gave an impressive speech which combined rare passion with forensic analysis of Mrs May’s proposals (Labour MPs suspect that his speech was written by Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, rather than Seumas Milne, his usual wordsmith.) Many other MPs were on impressive form. There was plenty of parliamentary rhetoric of a high order. The pity was that it was all devoted to appraising a deal that has little chance of making Britain a better place. 

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