- Good news for Julian Smith. The essence of the Grieve amendment is that it opens up a path to No Brexit. Very well, the Chief Whip may be tempted to think. If pro-Leave MPs believe they have a choice between a Grieve-led No Brexit and Theresa May’s flawed deal, they will vote for the latter next Tuesday. Conspiracy theorists yesterday evening were suggesting that this reasoning explains why loyalists such as Damian Green and Oliver Letwin voted against the Government and for the amendment.
- But hang on. There’s bad news for Smith. Steve Baker and the ERG leadership are having none of it. Let Grieve table and pass as many motions as he likes, they were arguing yesterday: the Government cannot be mandated by motions. The Prime Minister can and should tell the Remainers to bog off if necessary. All she and her government need to do is to hang on until March 29, and Brexit will be duly delivered. So the ERG and other Brexiteers will vote against the Government next week. Smith’s cunning plan won’t work.
- And there is worse news for him, too. Perhaps the Grieve amendment will have an effect at the margins on some Leavers. But Remainers now have an incentive to vote against May next week: to prod the Commons towards No Brexit. And the ERG and other Leavers have an incentive, too: to keep up the pressure on May for No Deal, if necessary. So any clever plan by Smith is in danger not only of not working; it threatens to boomerang back to smack the Whips Office in the jaw.
- But wait. Yes, there’s good news for the Chief Whip after all. Even if they band together to vote down May’s deal next Tuesday, the aims of Remainers and Leavers will be different. In a nutshell, the drift of the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy, over two and a half years, has been from a Nick Timothy-crafted position with clear red lines…through Chequers and the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson…to the breaking of those lines over Northern Ireland, transition and the backstop. The policy is softer than it was.
- So it is now clearly in the interests of the Remainers to keep May in place. The lesson that Grieve and company will draw from yesterday is: keep pushing. Working with Labour and other opposition parties, they can manipulate the pro-Remain sympathies of the Commons to their advantage. A change of leader would probably mean a new Brexiteer Prime Minister, such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab or even David Davis, armed with a mandate to defy No Brexit and deliver No Deal. Why would they want that?
- And it is not clear that Leavers on the Conservative benches have the numbers to depose her. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Baker couldn’t find them last month. It might be that, in the wake of a defeat for May next week, Brexiteers decide that enough is enough, and that elusive total of 48 letters is reached then – or even before. None the less, it isn’t evident that they have enough support to topple May in a confidence ballot (though Mark Harper’s defection from the loyalist ranks may be a sign that her days really are numbered).
- The swing voters are, as ever, the J.Alfred Prufrocks of the backbenches. According to our count, 181 Conservative MPs voted Remain in 2016, and 129 voted Leave. Obviously, the Commons has changed a bit since then. But the average Tory MP is a soft Remainer or moderate Leaver – perhaps with an eye to the Norway option being pushed by some of Grieve’s supporters yesterday. (Indeed, his amendment can be seen as a pincer movement on the Prime Minister by a makeshift alliance of Remainers and Norwegians.)
- What stirs more fear in those backbenchers – No Deal or No Brexit? Do they dread most the undoubted difficulties of No Deal, leading to a collapse of confidence in the Government, the loss of their seats, and a Corbyn-led Government – perhaps sooner rather than later? Or do they fear No Brexit more – and the revenge of a turbulent electorate, cheated of the prize it voted for, which sends the Conservatives the way of the old Christian Democrats in Italy? There is no away of knowing.
- At any rate, May’s very weakness is now a strange strength. Voted guilty of contempt of Parliament; beaten three times yesterday (the first time a government has been so for some 40 years); staring down the barrel of defeat next week, she now leads the weakest government in modern times. But this very vulnerability is becoming a strange source of strength – or survival, at any rate. She hangs on because her party can’t agree on a replacement. Because while it doesn’t like her plan, it can’t settle on an alternative.
- Could the Cabinet oust her next week? Perhaps. But, as recent events have shown, a Prime Minister can impose a plan on a Cabinet that it doesn’t much care for. She controls its meetings, proceedings and minutes. Each of her Ministers has their own ambitions and agendas: they do not find it easy to act in concert. She has ridden out the resignations of two Brexit Secretaries, a Foreign Secretary and a Work and Pensions Ministers. And called the bluff of the pizza gang of five Cabinet Leavers.
- Might she resign if beaten next week? Maybe. But if she quits as Party leader, she will open the door to a Brexiteer as her replacement. And it is not clear that she could simply resign as Prime Minister. That would put the Queen in a difficult position. Would the latter then send for, say, David Lidington, or for Jeremy Corbyn and, in either case, on what basis? Any such move would be resisted by the Palace. In any event, Prime Ministers tend not to resign. The last to go willingly was Harold Wilson, and he was ill.
- So can May go on…and on…and on? Almost certainly not. Leavers are losing patience with her. Remainers are using her. Any dash from cover risks her swift removal – whatever tactical alliances may form to prop her up temporarily. A tilt to Norway, No Brexit or No Deal risks stirring up those parts of the Parliamentary Party opposed to each of the three. The only glimmer of good news comes from her Party’s right – and the departure of Nigel Farage from a UKIP lurching to the fringes (though she has lost the DUP).
- Finally, ponder the shape of events. Voters were narrowly for Leave in 2016. The Commons is still for Remain: perhaps a sixth of it is for Brexit by conviction rather than calculation. And the long and short of it is that the more time passes – and the deeper the Government’s crisis becomes – the less MPs pay even lip-service to the biggest event in our electoral history. The tide in Parliament is for Remain. It moves slowly – even glacially. But it is carrying the Prime Minister with it.
The defectors are wrong. The Conservatives aren’t shifting to the right. They are mired in the mixed middle.
Yes, our system favours the established parties. But it is not invulnerable to change. This could be the start of a breakthrough.
321 comments for: Drained of authority? Yes. Rudderless? Certainly. Humiliated? Absolutely. But May’s very weakness is becoming a strange strength.
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