We are now at the point in the political cycle when we reflect upon who is responsible for the downfall of Theresa May. One obvious place to start is whether or not she is to blame. This comes down to whether it was the Parliamentary arithmetic which left it impossible for any Prime Minister to have honoured the referendum result. Jacob Rees-Mogg put the case to Sophie Ridge on Sky News last month that May could still have chosen to end our membership of the EU. He said:
“I would question the failure to get enough support for no deal. You are quite right, Parliament has passed motions objecting to a no deal Brexit. But, it passed two laws which provided for us to leave on March 29 which was subsequently delayed. Law trumps motions and the Prime Minister could have taken us out on March 29, it was the Prime Minister who asked for an extension. It was the Prime Minister who changed the date by prerogative power from March 29 to April 12. This all rests with her and on her shoulders. She has made, the Prime Minister, Mrs May, has made active choices to stop us leaving and she deserves to be held to account for that, because people ought to know the truth of the position, rather than trying to blame everybody else.”
That is convincing. However, there is no automatic correlation between a Prime Minister performing poorly and being swiftly removed from office. Often the Prime Minister of the day will refute such a premise and instead resolve that it is a matter of public duty to “cling to office” – the current holder of the office has shown the most exceptional tenacity in that respect. Rather than jumping, a push is required.
Even if a general election isn’t the mechanism for removing a PM, the mood of the electorate matters. Some seemed to feel that Brexiteers would have to accept whatever mild (some would say bogus) form of Brexit that the Government offered as the alternative was no Brexit at all. It wasn’t as if switching from the Conservatives to Labour or the Lib Dems would offer much advantage. UKIP is ceased to be a credible force. So Brexiteers would just have to “suck it up”. They could put up with what they regarded as a “vassal state” offer of being an EU colony, a kind of non-voting membership where we still had to follow the rules and pay the subs. Or we could drop the whole idea and carry on as full EU members. Just because they had won the referendum what made these “extremists” think they could have it all their own way with a real Brexit?
The extraordinary rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party showed this approach to be a miscalculation. It provided a vehicle for Brexiteers to indicate that they were not prepared to “suck it up”. So Farage might have a claim to have forced May’s demise. Or, perversely enough, those devoted to her but who gave her such dire advice could be held to be culpable. Step forward, Gavin Barwell. His opposition to Brexit is positively fanatical. Yet May chose him as her Chief of Staff. Thus the Government signed up to a “deal” which was so craven it was very hard to defend.
Once the unpopularity of the Government’s approach became clear there was the the role for the “men in grey suits”. Tory MPs concerned about losing their seats make their concerns apparent to the 1922 Committee, which represents them. Then the required message is passed on. Except it was passed on without enough clarity. Or at any rate, was resisted. Last December a motion of no confidence was held but the MPs fluffed it. That then left the procedural point that nothing more could be done for a year without changing the rules. So that led to lots of chin scratching and dithering. But there was a valid point about fair play. The vote in December was meant to resolve the matter for at least 12 months.
There was an alternative route available. The Cabinet can also bring down a Prime Minister. Under Margaret Thatcher, it had a crucial role. But, if anything, the Cabinet has proved even more cautious that the 1922 Committee. There would be coded references to how difficult the situation was. But then it was possible for May not to understand the code – or affect not to do so.
So what really brought matters to a head? Who brought down the Prime Minister?
There is a case to be made that it was Dinah Glover, the Chairman of the London East Conservatives. She was responsible for gathering the signatories for a special meeting of the Party’s National Convention to consider a motion of No Confidence in the Leader. This was to be considered on June 15th. Glover now accepts that there is “no need” for this to take place. But she proposes that the meeting goes ahead with a different item of business:
“Each leadership contender needs to be put under the spotlight of democracy and be questioned by the membership and possibly wider about their policies, vision and route to exiting the EU. This can be happening simultaneously to the MPs voting…We need a leader who believes in post Brexit Britain and its benefits, who will ensure we leave either with a good deal or if the EU will not change their current position be prepared to leave on WTO terms. They must be able to articulate a positive Brexit.”
In other words a hustings. We understand that her request is likely to be agreed.
I remember Dinah from some years ago when we were both active in the Greater London Young Conservatives. At the time she was rather “pro European”. I even have a vague recollection of Dinah (then Dinah Evans) and her friend Jane Ellison (of the Tory Reform Group and future MP for Battersea) organising Europe Day food festivals. Andrew Rosindell was around at the time and didn’t think much of it. Of course, the EU, or the EEC as it was then named, was rather different then.
The irony is that while the Conservative Party membership supposedly has little power, it would have been hard to see May continue after the humiliation of a no confidence motion from the voluntary party going through – as there was every sign it would have done. The date was fixed. It was getting nearer. While the backbenchers and cabinet ministers were being feeble, the Party membership showed resolve.
This would not have been easy. The rank and file are traditionally the most loyal to the leadership. Yet the duty to the nation comes first and that was what many quietly resolved. The fact that the motion no longer needs to be debated does not detract from the significance of it having been tabled. It turns out that all those humble raffle sellers and envelope stuffers in “grassroots” are capable of exercising some political clout after all.