You may or may not think that Jacob Rees-Mogg was wise to seek to force a leadership challenge to Theresa May without having the means to deliver it. Or that the European Research Group was right eventually to stump up the numbers to force a ballot at all. Or that their timing and tactics were well executed, since they failed to dislodge the Prime Minister. Or that a big slice of the group is not being honest about its real aim, which is not to eliminate the backstop, but May’s entire deal – and deliver a No Deal outcome (which is certainly the case). Or that the ERG got it wrong when it voted against the Government last week.
This site believes that it was mistaken on the last point, by the way. Better to have let the Government’s motion pass, with all its flaws, than to have disrupted the Prime Minister’s latest negotiating effort. After all, there is always a chance that Geoffrey Cox and company will deliver meaningful change to the backstop.
But whatever you think of the ERG, its members are not Ministers openly defying the policy of the Government which collective responsibility obliges them to support.
Greg Clark, David Gauke, Amber Rudd and some junior Ministers – Tobias Ellwood and Richard Harrington are the most visible examples – are like small fish nibbling away at a bigger, inert, blubbery one. The latter is too exhausted to defend itself. The former grow bolder with every nibble and chomp. First come the off-the-record quotes (though as journalists we have no complaint about these). Then the flagrantly out-of-line oped pieces. Finally, we have the article from the first three, seeking in effect to rule out a No Deal Brexit.
Fine. Understandable. That’s their view. But it is not the Government’s policy, at least as far as we know. Should they resign? Of course. Will they? Apparently not – since, from their own tactical, self-preservatory view, the Prime Minister is too weak to sack them.
What would be the gain of firing them, anyway? May would have to go on to dismiss other junior Ministers who are taking the same stance. All that would do is ensure that all of them – maybe five or so people; maybe ten; maybe more – would be certain to back the Cooper amendment, or whatever its successor is, this week. In which case it would almost certainly pass, which it is likely to do in any event. And then, most likely, there will then not only be no No Deal Brexit, but no Brexit at all.
In which case, let the Prime Minister force a general election, I hear you say. And deprive the lot of them of the whip, thus deselecting them as Conservative candidates. The urge is especially tempting given early, rudimentary polling which shows the Independent Group damaging Labour more than the Conservatives. But not so fast. The more one thinks it through, the more problematic an election becomes.
May might not be able to negotitate the hazards of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. But if she did, her troubles might only be starting. In terms of manifesto, machine and even money, CCHQ is not ready for a contest. An election might turn out to be about other matters than Brexit, anyway: remember June 2017. There is a real risk that we would end up governed by Marxists who think that Venezuela is a model for the rest of the world. This morning, its Government is apparently engaged in keeping aid out of that ruined country. Bravo, Corbyn!
Now suppose that the election were to focus on Brexit after all. What would the Conservative Manifesto say? Presumably, it would echo May’s refusal to rule out No Deal and, in effect, rule out the Brady amendment, too – in the sense of seeking to remove the entire backstop from a Brexit deal, and perhaps then substitute for it the Malthouse compromise entire. Some pro-Remain and Soft Brexit Tory MPs wouldn’t accept the former. Some ERG and other pro-Brexit ones wouldn’t accept the latter.
The consequence would be a campaign rather like that of 1997, in which Conservative MPs divided over whether or not to rule out joining the Euro in principle, but on a bigger scale. That campaign delivered Tony Blair a landslide majority. A successor along the lines we sketch would do Corbyn no harm at all. CCHQ could of course – on instruction from Downing Street – deselect dissident candidates en masse. Could the Party survive the removal of scores of MPs? Is this a power that CCHQ should exercise, anyway?
So consider the alternative – letting a thousand Brexit policy flowers bloom, and Tory MPs do and say almost whatever they like. That doesn’t sound like a surefire election winner. Nor would it solve the Prime Minister’s problems. All an election victory and a working majority would return to the Commons under these conditions is a mass of Conservative MPs unsupportive of the Brexit policy set out in the manifesto. Back to square one.
In short, May looks damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. Mind you, our sympathy for her is limited. She hasn’t prepared properly for No Deal. She has consistently treated Brexit as a problem alone rather than an opportunity. She didn’t spot the backstop coming, and now both EU and UK positions on it are entrenched. Despite all this, she has none the less produced a deal that almost works, but which threatens to keep us, by means of that backstop, in a Union-damaging arrangement that we would have no right to leave.
As we write, the Prime Minister’s chicken game is lurching towards its endpoint. She is engaged in a race against time to find a revised deal that can somehow change the Attorney General’s opinion, square the ERG, persuade Rudd and company that the deal will pass, sap support from the Cooper amendment, and perhaps persuade Oliver Letwin and company to withdraw their support for it. It looks more likely than not that this bid will fail, and that the amendment will pass this week (if there are votes at all).
After which we would move towards unknown political and constitutional country. Amidst all this, the Government drifts. What with all those phone calls and briefings and opeds and open letters, goodness knows when the Work and Pensions Secretary, plus her allies, find the time to do the ministerial work for which the taxpayer is paying them.