Can the prime minister defy the odds and shrug off yet another political body blow?by Paul Wallace / November 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theresa May has her detractors, not least in her own party, but she has also won admiration for her sheer resilience. This is a prime minister, after all, whose imminent political demise has been predicted repeatedly since she lost the Conservative majority in last year’s disastrous election. Can she prevail yet again now that the unpalatable—if realistic—terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union have been revealed?
May’s ability to cope with seemingly fatal political bodyblows was on full display this week as she sought to muster support for the Brexit deal finally struck in Brussels. This torturous process spurred yet more cabinet resignations. A prime minister who created the Brexit department in the wake of the 2016 referendum, has now lost not just one but two incumbents as Dominic Raab followed David Davis in resigning as Brexit Secretary. Shortly afterwards Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, also resigned.
Would more cabinet ministers follow, turning a manageable trickle into a cascade that might fatally undermine May’s authority? As so often in the story of Brexit, Michael Gove appeared poised to make a decisive intervention when it emerged on Thursday that he had rejected the post of Brexit secretary. Gove reportedly wanted to pursue an alternative approach to Brexit, in which Britain would temporarily park itself in the position of countries such as Norway which are outside the EU but in the single market. Speculation was rife that he might follow Raab and McVey in resigning, further weakening May’s position. But today Gove stepped back from the brink.
Even if May has staunched the flow of resignations from the cabinet she may shortly have to face another hurdle, a formal challenge within the Conservative Party to her leadership. In a flurry of publicity on Thursday, hardline Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg added his letter calling for a no confidence vote to those already sent to Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee. It now looks increasingly likely that the pile of letters will reach 48, the number needed to trigger such a vote among Tory MPs. Yet even if this happens it seems unlikely that May would lose; and if she wins she cannot be challenged for a further 12 months.
May’s ability to withstand one blow after another reflects her personal strengths. After taking a battering in the House of Commons on Thursday as MPs vied with each other to take aim at the deal, she was undaunted. She swiftly summoned the press to Downing Street where she compared herself to one of her cricket heroes, Geoffrey Boycott, the grittily defensive opening batsman who “stuck to it and got the runs in the end.”
But May’s resilience also reflects the politics of Brexit. Having willed Britain’s departure Tory Brexiters prefer to bay from the wings than to have to assume the practical responsibility of minimising harm from leaving. That job has fallen to May, who herself has been on a steep learning curve as she has had to smudge red lines that she unwisely drew at the outset, such as over the continuing role of the European Court of Justice. May offers what is feasible rather than what is fanciful after negotiations that have stripped bare the weakness of Britain’s position.
Ironically, May also owes some of her resilience to her fellow leaders in the EU, who regard her as someone with whom they can do business. Although they are determined to make clear that countries leaving the EU must pay a price, they want Britain’s exit to be an orderly affair, not least since a chaotic one would also damage continental countries. When the German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out on Thursday any further negotiations, this helped indirectly to prop up May’s authority at home by banging shut the door to hopes that a change in British leadership would make any difference.
Assuming that May does remain prime minister, undoubtedly her biggest challenge will be to get her deal through the House of Commons. The arithmetic looks impossible. Rather than propping up May’s minority government, the ten-strong Northern Irish DUP will vote against the agreement. A large contingent of Brexiter Tories is expected to vote it down while a smaller number of Remainers will do the same. With the SNP also rejecting the deal, May can only get it through with substantial support from Labour MPs, which looks unlikely.
Yet even if May fails initially she might succeed on a second try if there is a punishing response from financial markets at the prospect of a disastrous no-deal Brexit. The precedent of the American House of Representatives at the height of the 2008 financial crisis is widely cited: when markets tanked after they initially rejected a banking bail-out they hastily changed their minds.
And there is another possibility. May has repeatedly ruled out a second referendum. But then she also ruled out calling a general election—until she did so. If the House of Commons refuses to back her deal, this may be the only way out for a prime minister with a remarkable ability to survive.