As I hammered out ConservativeHome’s snap coverage of the Davis resignation in the small hours of this morning, I ended the article by posing three initial questions:
‘Will any other ministers follow Davis and Baker out of the door? Who will May appoint as the new Brexit Secretary? And, bluntly, will she get the chance to appoint a replacement at all?’
We now know the answer to questions two and three – the Prime Minister has moved swiftly to appoint Dominic Raab to take Davis’ place at the Cabinet table. Let’s know recast the trio of questions for what happens next, one old and two new:
Will there be further resignations?
Such situations revolve around the momentum behind events – which depends ultimately on the scale and clout of those who resign. Davis is obviously an important figure, but it was Steve Baker’s decision to follow his boss out of the door which elevated the resignation from solo walk-out to at least mini-rebellion. The question is whether anyone will go next – and, if so, who?
Despite early reports to the contrary, Suella Braverman (formerly Fernandes), Baker’s fellow former ERG-chair-turned-Brexit-minister, has not quit the Government, which leaves a tense hiatus. Something big has happened, but nobody yet knows if it will grow further. Retaining Braverman, and bringing Raab up to the Cabinet, are both successes for Downing Street in that each is a Leaver who might have been at risk of resigning. But others – not least Boris Johnson – are surely considering their options.
May’s performance in the Commons and at the ’22 this afternoon could influence those wavering either way.
Will the 48 letters go to Sir Graham Brady?
Disregard the claims that go round about precisely how many letters the Chairman of the 1922 Committee supposedly already holds from MPs, and how many more are therefore required to trigger a ballot. He takes his solemn duty of confidentiality very seriously, and any numbers being touted round are based on guesstimates at best.
Let’s stick to what we do know. Brady already holds some letters. More Conservative MPs are now considering submitting them since Chequers. Davis and Baker were the canaries in the mine, and the sight of them toppling from their perches will alarm many Eurosceptics who are already concerned. However, Davis has not issued a clear signal for letters to be submitted, and has instead effectively given a warning about no further retreat being acceptable. Various MPs are reportedly withholding their judgement for the White Paper.
However, things are so finely balanced that things could tip at any moment. The Commons statement, the ’22 meeting, the deeply discomforting news that Gavin Barwell has invited Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs into Downing Street this afternoon to discuss Brexit…there are a myriad of chances to strike a spark, and Brady’s honourable silence means no-one knows if it might be their letter that lights the fuse.
To put it mildly, mismanaging Chequers so badly that she lost Davis is a reminder that it would be a mistake to overstate the Prime Minister’s capacity to keep people on board.
If the 48 letters do go in, will May win – and survive?
Getting the letters to Brady does not unseat a leader in itself. Instead, it triggers a confidence ballot among the Parliamentary Conservative Party, which the Prime Minister needs a simple majority in order to win, technically. The last word is important there – those around her say that she would stay even if she won by “just one vote”, but that is first and foremost a tactic to try to persuade MPs that it isn’t worth challenging her.
May has demonstrated remarkable powers of survival, not least in retaining office following her own disastrous election campaign, but that is no guarantee that she would survive even a victory in such a ballot. Political authority can burn away like mist in the morning; just ask Margaret Thatcher, who was deposed after winning a leadership ballot by what was felt to be an insufficiently convincing margin. And securing victory is in itself a major challenge.
On paper, the stakes are certainly high for both sides. If a vote is held and the Prime Minister wins, she could technically continue in office with immunity from a new challenge for a year. If she loses, she would be forbidden from standing in the ensuing leadership contest. In practice, if it gets to the point of a ballot then the pressure on her authority would be vast.