What happens next?
Version One. Before the summer recess, Graham Brady receives 48 letters demanding a vote of confidence in Theresa May as Conservative leader. She either sweeps it, wins it marginally – the worst of all worlds result – or loses, though this last outcome is highly improbable. If she loses, a Conservative leadership election must take place. There is an immediate set-to about the methodology, with some MPs seeking a “coronation” – Javid/Gove, say, or Gove/Hunt. Whatever the outcome, the new Prime Minister returns to the Commons in the wake of what may well be a fractious leadership election, with the Brexit talks suspended and the Parliamentary arithmetic unchanged. You tell us what happens then, as the EU turns the negotiating screws: a dash for EEA membership; No Deal and a WTO minimum arrangement; a last-gasp pitch by the Government to postpone Article 50.
Version Two. Brady does not receive 48 letters. Neither David Davis nor Boris Johnson launch a sustained effort to depose May – which would be unsurprising, since this does not appear to have been part of either man’s resignation plan. Downing Street concludes, not unreasonably, that the Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG included, are all mouth and no trousers. Consequently, it offers concessions to the EU when it, as it must, pushes for them – arguing, for example, that the four freedoms and the internal market are indivisible, and the ECJ rulings cannot be subordinated to an arbitration process. After the inevitable argy-bargy, the Government probably seeks to yield on some points rather than “crash out without a deal”. What follows must either be a further capitulation by Brexiteering Ministers and the ERG, or resignations and a leadership challenge – if a formal ballot is possible: after all, one may already have taken place. May either sweeps it, wins it marginally…[repeat as in the paragraph above].
All this is seen through a glass darkly and, this site being no more infallible than anyone else, and your guess at what happens next is as good as ours. But a single reflection on the events of the last few days is necessary. Both Downing Street and the Brexiteering Ministers had a plan. May’s is summarised in the three-page statement released after the Chequers. The Brexiteering Ministers’ was contained in DexEU’s draft of the forthcoming White Paper. But, for better or worse, they had no plan to use this as the basis of an alternative proposal at the Cabinet meeting. This points to a wider truth. Downing Street had the bully pulpit, control of the system and a position on the table. The Brexiteering Ministers had different ambitions, political (as opposed to policy) positions and bottom lines. When push came to shove, they didn’t work as a team – as can be seen by Davis and Boris Johnson not co-ordinating their resignations.
Liam Fox, Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, perhaps Michael Gove, and maybe others should remember Benjamin Franklin. “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”