“MY LITTLE CHILDREN let us not love in word neither in tongue but in deed and in truth.” The biblical verse carved in stone in a converted church in Westminster contained a lesson for the band of ageing revolutionaries gathered below on November 20th. Deed and truth have been lacking in an attempted coup by Tory MPs against their leader, Theresa May. Plenty had promised to send in one of the 48 letters needed to trigger a confidence vote in the prime minister. But almost a week after the young fogey in charge of the revolt, Jacob Rees-Mogg, announced the rebellion, not enough actually had.
It was not supposed to be like this. For months, breathless reports from anonymous MPs suggested that just a few more letters were necessary. Mr Rees-Mogg and his allies in the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tory MPs were said to have a gun held to the prime minister’s head, and be willing to pull the trigger if they did not like the Brexit deal she had brought home from Brussels. In the end, they fired a blank.
Hardline Tory Brexiteers are loud in voice, but small in number. They are dwarfed by a more pragmatic wing of the party, which includes the bulk of Conservative MPs, though it generates less press coverage. “ERG leaders are ideologues,” says one former minister. “Most Conservatives, including most Leavers, are not.” The fight is between pragmatists, happy to compromise for the sake of power, and a minority who have an ideological commitment to reclaiming every last scrap of sovereignty from the European Union, he says.
Unfortunately for Mrs May, an abundance of pragmatic MPs does not make her life much easier. Her main problem in the next few weeks will not be fending off half-baked leadership plots, but pushing her Brexit deal through Parliament. Although the ideologues are few, the government’s majority is even smaller. Mrs May depends on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is wobbling (see article). Mr Rees-Mogg’s band of Brexiteers might struggle to bring down the prime minister, but they may well stop her deal.
A small tail of Europe-obsessed MPs has wagged the Conservative Party dog for decades. In the last few years of David Cameron’s government, Eurosceptic MPs were cast as crack guerrillas. Under the stewardship of Steve Baker, one of those behind the attempted coup against Mrs May, they forced Mr Cameron to retreat over the terms of the Brexit referendum, bullying him into enforcing purdah (when the government stops introducing new measures during election campaigns). After the referendum was won, Mr Baker boasted of having read “The 33 Strategies of War”, a self-help book which claims to distil the wisdom of Napoleon, Clausewitz and Alexander the Great. Now the ERG is more often compared to “Dad’s Army”, a sitcom about a hapless platoon of volunteers in the second world war.
On the opposite side of the Tory party, Remainer MPs are making trouble. Earlier this month Jo Johnson, a brother of Brexiteer Boris, resigned as transport minister and called for a second referendum, to pit Mrs May’s deal against the alternatives of remaining in the EU and leaving without a deal. Tory MPs complain that their inboxes are deluged with demands for both extremes: a “People’s Vote” on one hand, or a no-deal Brexit on the other. (Emails about more mundane topics, like delayed trains, still outnumber both.)
Most Conservative MPs want neither a leadership contest nor a second referendum. Getting Brexit over with is more important. To them, the deal is good enough, and they suspect voters will feel the same. Though two cabinet ministers, including the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned over Mrs May’s deal, the rest, notably Michael Gove, environment secretary and leading figure in the Leave campaign, have swallowed their concerns. After all, some Brexit is better than no Brexit, which Mrs May threatens could be the result if Parliament rejects the deal. “Most people are not idiots and do not expect the moon on toast,” says one MP whose constituency voted narrowly to leave.
In the grassroots, it is another story. As the party’s membership has shrunk, it has become more extreme in its views. Today’s Conservative members are much more interested in Brexit than bake sales, worry MPs and aides. An increasingly Eurosceptic membership has caused some MPs to look at the rise of the Tea Party in the Republican ranks in America, where radical activists dragged the party to the right.
The threat to Mrs May is not over. Some 26 MPs publicly claim to have put in letters. Another handful may have done so secretly. It would not take many more for Mrs May to face a confidence ballot. If Parliament rejects her Brexit deal, a confidence vote may be in the offing, predicts one backbench Machiavelli who steered clear of Mr Rees-Mogg’s plot. In that context, Tory MPs could say they were acting in the national interest—changing the prime minister in order to get a Brexit deal through—rather than engaging in a bout of regicide for internal reasons.
At the moment, Downing Street fancies a fight. Mrs May has won the grudging respect, if not the affection, of voters. A poll by YouGov finds that 46% want her to stay in the job, compared with 33% a week ago. The spectacle of unserious MPs trying and failing to remove her suits the prime minister’s aides, who like to portray her as a serious woman getting on with a difficult job. If MPs do stumble over the 48-letter threshold, Mrs May would probably win the confidence motion. Under party rules, another vote could not be held for a year.
Still, nothing is guaranteed. Public pledges of support can turn into something else in the privacy of a voting booth. As Mr Rees-Mogg found out, word and deed do not always match in the Tory party.