Theresa May braced for a fall as Brexit tests loom
On the morning of Friday June 9, Theresa May walked through the black door of Downing Street and into an empty shell. Where once there was power, wielded through control and fear, there was impotence. Overnight, Mrs May’s attempt to win an electoral mandate to negotiate Brexit on her own terms had been eviscerated.
As the door swung open, an ashen prime minister was applauded by her officials. A few days later, in the Pillared Room of Number 10, Mrs May spoke with a catch in her voice as she thanked her staff for that act of kindness. But Mrs May’s leadership would never be the same again.
Downing Street had become a lonely place. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Mrs May’s chiefs of staff, did not accompany her into Number 10 on that morning and the next day they resigned. Several weeks later, eyewitnesses say her office is still depleted, key jobs unfilled. “The bunker seems almost empty and deeply disheartened,” says one.
Meanwhile cabinet ministers exploit the vacuum by publicly dictating terms to Mrs May on the future direction of policy on Brexit and the economy. The briefings and the jostling for succession become more audacious as the days pass. Mrs May’s election offer of “strong and stable” leadership is now a staple of the gallows humour that has enveloped Conservative MPs.
Mrs May only survived the humiliation of last month’s snap election because Conservatives have decided that the alternatives to an enfeebled leader are even worse. On June 9 party grandees trooped into Downing Street to tell the emotional prime minister that she had a duty to party and country to stay.
Most Conservative MPs fear that if Mrs May is ousted, the party would face a leadership contest that would once again split it over Europe, this time between those favouring a soft or hard Brexit. There is no obvious frontrunner, the eventual winner would have no direct mandate from the British people and they might inherit a party in a state of nervous disintegration. There would be a clamour for another election, which the leftwing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could win. Although Mr Corbyn is no fan of the EU, the Brexit process would be thrown into chaos.
“There is a general mood of seriousness and a sense that if we screw this up, a Marxist government steps into the breach,” says one senior Conservative MP. Another says: “The person holding the party together is Jeremy Corbyn. The fear of Corbyn is greater than any nuance in the Brexit negotiation.”
Under the most common plan articulated by Conservative MPs, the first aim is to get the prime minister through to the safety of the summer recess on July 20. Then, if all goes well, Mrs May would stay long enough to oversee Brexit in March 2019, taking the blame if it goes wrong. Then, her political use exhausted, she would hand over to a new leader to take the party into the next election in 2022.
It is an uphill and thankless task, but Mrs May insists she is up for it. “I will serve as long as you want me,” she told the party’s MPs on June 12. “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it.” One Conservative MP says: “She has the real sense of duty of a vicar’s daughter.”
Mrs May has stabilised her situation in recent days. Her parliamentary performances have been solid, while Mr Corbyn has failed to exploit her weakness. She has replaced the aggressive Mr Timothy and Ms Hill with a single chief of staff, the popular former MP Gavin Barwell. After her woefully misjudged visit to the site of the Grenfell Tower fire last month, where she failed to meet survivors, she has had a better few days. “She’s laughing again,” says one Downing Street insider.
But the reprieve may be temporary. Mrs May might get through to the summer holidays but her fragile grip on power will be tested again in what promises to be a dangerous October.
In the first test, Mrs May attends the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester. It will see cabinet ministers jostling for position in the leadership contest that they believe will take place in the following 18 months.
It has started already. In recent days potential leadership contenders such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson have taken to publicly unpicking the government’s austerity programme by calling for an end to the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons who fought Mrs May for the party leadership in 2016, made an unannounced visit to Grenfell Tower to meet survivors, in a move seen by Number 10 as a blatant attempt to show she possessed more empathy than the prime minister.
But these acts of cabinet insurrection are nothing compared with the public battle raging between ministers over Brexit, with Mrs May apparently unable to stop it. The hard and soft Brexiters will make their pitches to the Conservative faithful in Manchester, just weeks before Mrs May has to make up her own mind on how she hopes to execute Britain’s departure from the EU.
By October, Ms Merkel and Mr Macron will be expecting answers from Mrs May: is she going to seek a softer, more protracted Brexit, spread over several years, or the harder, quicker version favoured by some in her party? If she tacks away from a hard Brexit, she risks incurring the wrath of the Eurosceptics.
All the while Mrs May will aim to push Brexit legislation through the House of Commons when she has a working majority of only 13 and is vulnerable to rebellions by pro-European Conservatives pushing her towards a softer version of Brexit and disarming her threat to walk away with no deal.
The poison is already running around the system. “We can work with half the Labour party and crush the fuckers,” says one Conservative MP, referring to his Eurosceptic colleagues. A leading pro-Brexit MP says he would not tolerate threats from the “wankers” on his party’s pro-European wing.
Faced with implacable opponents in Brussels, a breakdown in cabinet discipline and a party torn over Europe, one can now see why Mrs May hoped to maintain the iron control that would have come with her expected “stronger mandate” on June 8. Instead she must try to hold it all together and deliver Brexit — a policy she initially opposed — as her last gift to a party counting down the days to the moment when it can finally oust her.