Does the ERG have the numbers and coherence to bring down May? Jacob Rees-Mogg’s double coup de theatre yesterday – his extraordinary musing-aloud in PMQs about writing to Graham Brady, and his impromptu press conference later announcing that he’d done so – has raised the stakes for the group and, of course, for May, the Party, and the country itself. As a loose alliance of 80 or so people, the ERG doesn’t speak with one voice. On the one hand, Rees-Mogg and Baker are for a challenge; on other, Bernard Jenkin and Michael Fabricant, say, are apparently not. Why? Two main reasons. First, because they’re not sure the numbers are there to defeat May. Second, because there’s no agreed successor.
But does Brady already have the letters in his pocket? There are few rules governing a 1922 Committee Chairman’s supervision of letters demanding a leadership change. Perhaps Brady already has 48, but is unwilling to make an announcement today, when the Commons isn’t sitting. Maybe some of them aren’t clear (and if you think that such a letter must be so, you may not have met all members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party). Perhaps some are post-dated. Maybe he is waiting till Monday. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best: he doesn’t have 48 – yet. You never know.
Will Gove quit today? On Wednesday, he reluctantly backed the Prime Minister’s deal in Cabinet. Yesterday, he turned down the Brexit Secretary post, urging her to renegotiate her deal. His enemies will claim he’s having another “Michael moment” – like his dramatic withdrawal of support for Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. That’s one reading. Another is, as we wrote yesterday, that he is intolerably conflicted about which course is best for the country, but cannot bring himself to help sell the deal in public. May would have done better, from her point of view, to leave him quietly at Environment. Now he may go.
Will Mordaunt? (And others.) The International Development Secretary has the bit between her teeth about a free vote on the deal. On she pushes – having a second go at May yesterday, this time at a private meeting. But it was never likely that the Prime Minister would unwhip Conservative MPs from her central policy – not least because it would be read by some as a signal that they would be free to vote against. It is claimed that Chris Grayling is wobbling: he’s another conflicted Brexiteer. We don’t read Liam Fox as a resigner. Remember: all fear bringing down the Government and opening the door to Jeremy Corbyn.
Who stitched up Raab? A key driver for his resignation was a far-reaching change to the Political Declaration over which he wasn’t consulted. Originally, it suggested that the options for Britain’s economic relationship with the EU would be broad enough to include a Canada-type option. But the final version, not cleared by him in advance, lashes the country to customs arrangements “that build on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement”. That’s Norway-plus-customs-union in perpetuity. It’s easy to blame Olly Robbins. The finger of suspicion points not just at May but at Philip Hammond.
Who on earth would take his old job, anyway? Sideline your Brexit Secretary once, shame on you. Sideline him twice, and shame on whatever mug steps up to take the post third time round. It’s too easy simply to blame Robbins, and friends of Raab have a grudging respect for this abilities. The essence of the matter is that May is her own Brexit Secretary now – working closely with Hammond, who has played a quiet blinder over the closest possible alignment with the EU. He is the Cabinet’s below-the-radar big winner – working closely, some claim, with Robbins.
Remainers are split, too… It’s easy to miss the point amidst the fog of news, but former and present Remainers are no less divided than Leavers. On the one hand, Dominic Grieve is going full-out for a second referendum, and seems therefore to have rejected May’s deal. Former Ministers who have resigned – Justine Greening, Phillip Lee, Guto Bebb and Jo Johnson seem to be in the same camp. Anna Soubry also pushed for a second poll yesterday. Meanwhile, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond, Bob Neill and Jonathan Djanogly look more likely to swallow May’s deal. Ken Clarke is on the fence.
The Conservative-DUP deal – not dead, but sleeping? The fury of Nigel Dodds’ assault on the Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday suggested that the deal is off. It depends what you mean. Jeffrey Donaldson was stressing yesterday that the confidence-and-supply arrangement is with the Conservative Party, not May herself – but that it would be “in trouble” if her deal passes the Commons. Evidently, the party is torn between its abhorrence of Jeremy Corbyn and its detestation of the deal. A common sense reading is that May can’t rely on the DUP post-deal as she did pre-deal.
Sympathy for May? No poll has yet suggested substantial support out there – among the great mass of voters who want the Brexit drama to end – for the Prime Minister’s deal. But there is potential for her in the stand-off between a dogged woman, doing her duty as she sees it, and a mass of confused and sometimes cowardly men. Her endurance in the Commons yesterday, her determination to grind on, is umissable. A significant card in her hard is the shift of the Daily Express and, above all, the new gentler, kinder (and posher) Daily Mail – which turns Dacre-like fire this morning on the ERG rather than the Government.
None the less, her plan seems, in the last resort, to be to watch her Party split – and rely on Labour votes. It may be that the Whips’ Office has simply cocked up the numbers. One source claims to ConservativeHome that Julian Smith believed – and perhaps still does – that the DUP will abstain on May’s deal rather than oppose it, and that he is confident that the Tory rebel numbers can be whittled down. But Mark Francois’ Commons plea to the Prime Minister yesterday looks soundly based: he said that Conservative and DUP backing for it isn’t there in sufficient numbers. Which leaves Downing Street wooing Labour dissenters.
Watch the Cabinet floaters. One Cabinet member has told this site that trying to read the present political permutations is like trying to play three-dimensional chess with mice as pieces. That’s about right: the interaction between ERG divisions, Remainer splits, Labour differences, high principle, low ambition, the text of the deal is impossible to anticipate. Here is Geoffrey Hill’s “low tragedy, high farce”. The crooked timber of humanity is vulnerable to woodworm. But one stark fact stands out amidst the swirl. Terror of No Deal is driving May to risk splitting her Party and relying on Labour MPs instead.