In the now unlikely event of No Deal, the Prime Minister’s position should be secure, at least for a while. It would be all hands to the pump, and “no time for a novice”. If her deal passes through Parliament, Conservative MPs may then experience what one senior player calls a “sugar rush” – a brief sense of relief, well-being and confidence. In such circumstances, May would have a window to try to dig in. In the event of a short extension, the Conservative Parliamentary Party will have little motive to remove her, since a leadership election would be impracticable if the negotiation is up against a new spring deadline.
Only a long extension of, say, nine months or longer offers Tory MPs the chance to oust her quickly, through a combination of pressure from the 1922 Committee, the Cabinet and the voluntary party. Although she cannot be challenged in a confidence ballot until the autumn, there are other ways of expressing no confidence in a party leader, or threatening to. Some of these fall short of the nuclear option of voting with Labour in a no confidence motion, or at least abstaining. For example, Conservative MPs could declare that they would table or support a motion to cut the Prime Minister’s salary in half. This site has heard the option floated.
This background helps to explain why May was never likely to back a long extension. Downing Street’s warning that it might, issued over the weekend to panic Tory holdouts into supporting her deal, always looked like an empty threat. As we write, it can apparently be added to her long list of U-turns. Here is part of that list again: holding a general election in 2017; controlling migration during transition; extending transition; putting her deal to the Commons in December; opposing a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. (Check out her “Road to Brexit” video where she warned that this would keep Northern Ireland in “…parts of the Single Market. That would would break up the UK economically, and creating new barriers to our own internal market”.) We can now add the 108 times she said that Brexit will take place on March 29.
At any rate, Number Ten is briefing this morning that “the Prime Minister won’t be asking for a long extension”. There is a more urgent reason for her to clamber down off the fence she perched on yesterday, when her fellow Cabinet members were left unsure what length of extension she favours. With the Soft Brexiteers (and Remainers) in favour of a long extension and her harder ones backing a short one, she kept her cards clasped to her chest. Now she has been forced to move. A majority of Conservative MPs voted against any extension at all last week. May is due to address the 1922 Committee meeting this evening. Things were about to get very ugly indeed.
We suspect that May’s real hope, with tomorrow’s EU council looming, was for an ambigious outcome – a short extension with the possibility of a longer one at the end. Such an outcome would probably have come closest both to keeping her in place while not risking Cabinet resignations from either group of her divided ministers. The EU does not seem to favour such an extension, assuming it grants one at all. Some member states prefer a long extension; others, a short one. Readers will remember that Olly Robbins forecast the former while drinking in a Brussels bar. Very soon, we will know if he was right.