Are you listening, Theresa?
Eddie Ford looks at the latest blue-on-blue manoeuvrings and jockeying for power
What was that about “strong and stable government”? The media is increasingly full of stories about leadership challenges and votes of no confidence against Theresa May, whose authority is clearly draining away with almost each day that passes. Leading Tories, whether Brexiteers or Remainers, seem unhappy with the beleaguered prime minister and are trying to position themselves in the expectation that May will be forced out sooner or later - probably sooner.
Hence the near endless stream of acerbic Twitter comments, WhatsApp moanings, TV appearances, press interviews, briefings and counter-briefings, leaks and counter-leaks - and on January 29 the leaking to BuzzFeed of a ‘secret’ government report about the possible economic impact of Brexit. Originally intended to be shared only with cabinet ministers, the document, entitled ‘EU exit analysis - cross-Whitehall briefing’, was drawn up for the department for exiting the EU and suggests almost every part of the economy would suffer. Over a 15-year period national income would be 8% lower under a ‘no deal’ scenario, around 5% lower with a free-trade agreement with the EU, and about 2% lower with a soft Brexit option of single-market membership. In other words, the least bad scenario appears to be the “Philip Hammond option” - using the words of the BBC’s assistant political editor, Norman Smith. Furthermore, all the possibilities outlined in the document assume a new trade deal with the United States - which is questionable at the very least.
Naturally, this proved very embarrassing for the government. May declared in the Commons that it would be “wrong” to describe the leaked study as “the” Brexit impact assessment, as it was rather a “selective interpretation” of a “very preliminary analysis”, which government ministers have not signed off or approved. Later, Downing Street insisted that the BuzzFeed document did not cover May’s “preferred” outcome of a “bespoke” trade deal - even though European leaders have repeatedly said there is little scope for such an arrangement beyond a Canada-style deal that, according to Michel Barnier, would take “several years” to negotiate and which the document predicts would still damage the British economy anyway.
More forthrightly, Steve Baker - a Brexit minister and a former executive member of the influential 1922 Committee - stated that economic forecasts by government civil servants are “always wrong” due to “flaws in the epistemology of the social sciences”: indeed, he looked forward to proving the “horror story predictions” of economists wrong. Similarly, Brexit true believer Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC’s Today programme that the paper should be taken “with a pinch of salt”, as almost every single forecast on Brexit has been wrong: “It’s an incomplete report,” he said, “deliberately leaked because it gives a bad view.”
Feeling the pressure, May pledged on January 31 that MPs will see a full economic impact analysis before they vote on the final Brexit deal. As for the Labour Party, it will attempt to force the government to publish the full version of the study using the “humble address” - a fairly obscure procedure that forced David Davis to release information about the potential impact of Brexit on different sectors of the economy. Labour will win the vote and not only because 47 MPs (including Tories like Kenneth Clarke, Anna Soubry and Antoinette Sandbach) have signed a letter demanding the “secret study” be released. In fact, seeing the writing on the wall, the government decided not to contest the vote.
Not a quitter?
At the beginning of her three-day trade visit to China on January 31, Theresa May said to reporters that she was “not a quitter” and “the next general election isn’t until 2022” - even if she did partially admit that she needed to communicate better with MPs and the general public. Then again, David Cameron said something very similar and looked what happened to him.
But it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that she is living on borrowed time. She is being squeezed into political oblivion by the various factions vying for prominence within the party - the central fault line being Brexit, of course. Things took a serious turn for the worse for the prime minister nearly two weeks ago, when the Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, Nick Boles, told her to “raise her game” - apparently snapping over the decision by justice secretary David Gauke not to seek a judicial review into the parole board’s decision to free John Worboys after less than 10 years in prison. The 60-year-old taxi driver was jailed in 2009 for assaults on 12 women in London and the government had looked into the possibility of a legal challenge, but decided against it after consulting lawyers.
Boles launched a furious Twitter attack on Theresa May, saying her government was guilty of “timidity and lack of ambition” - part of a wider criticism of government policy in recent months that has appeared in his new book, Square deal, about how to “revitalise” modern Conservatism. “We need ministers to have the courage of their convictions and not be bamboozled by the advice of officials trying to justify the system,” he told The Guardian. For Boles, the Worboys decision was the “final straw” because a judicial review would have been an opportunity for ministers to express their anger - even if there was only a 10% chance of victory. In Square deal, Boles calls for a ‘bolder’ approach to economic, housing and health policy, arguing that the Tories must end the “age of austerity” and focus on investment and driving up productivity. Like many Tory MPs, he believes that the near obsessive focus on Brexit has been to the detriment of wider government policy - everything else getting sidelined to one degree or another.
Ever since Boles’s sharp comments, criticism has been raining down relentlessly on the prime minister’s head - more and more Tory MPs expressing doubts about her leadership, or lack of it. John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, has said now would not be an “appropriate time” to have a leadership election, but thinks one could take place after March next year - which in theory is when the UK begins the ‘transition phase’ out of the European Union. Give her the “opportunity” to negotiate the best Brexit deal possible, he told LBC, “then address issues of leadership after that”. On the same show, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary and persistent thorn in the side of the prime minister, said it was not the right time for a contest - absolutely not - but added that “we might revert to it in some months or years time”. Johnny Mercer, the Plymouth Moor View MP tipped as a rising star in the party, offered the opinion that “the window is closing” on the prime minister, because “politics can be quite a brutal game” - hardly an astounding revelation, but true nevertheless. He also took to the pages of The Times warning it is time to prepare for prime minister Corbyn unless “we get our shit together” (January 28).
Even Nicholas Soames, normally a loyal and placid backbencher, has described the government’s agenda as “dull, dull, dull” - Soames being no stranger to dullness himself. Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, joined the chorus by calling upon the prime minister to “get a grip” and Harrow MP Robert Halfon accused his leader - among other criticisms - of “policymaking by tortoise”. Or, as one particularly grumpy Tory MP put it, the government needs to start “fucking doing something”.1 Instructively, the odds of May leaving her post this year have considerably shortened at the bookmakers.
At the time of writing, up to 40 MPs are believed to have submitted letters of no confidence to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee - with more ready to pick up their pens if the party performs badly in the May local elections, as most people expect (some are predicting that the Tories could be facing wipe-out in London). According to the rules, there must be 48 letters to trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Charles Walker, the vice-chair of the committee, has commented that anyone wanting to pressurise the prime minister into naming a date for her departure should “sit in a darkened room and put a cold towel over their heads”.
But there does not appear to be enough cold towels to go round in today’s Conservative Party. Increasing numbers of Tories, and others, are fearing Brexit betrayal, or what Jacob Rees-Mogg calls ‘Brino’ (‘Brexit-in-name-only’). The fact that the impossibly ludicrous Rees-Mogg, who in a saner world would be a brilliant comedic construct, is being talked of in various circles as a possible future leader tells you almost everything you need to know about the current state of the Tory Party. MP for East Somerset and chairman of the European Research Group of backbench Tory Brexiteers, he has taken to the airwaves like a prophet, warning about the dangers of Brino. He is especially upset that the prime minister keeps talking about a “transition period”, as opposed to an implementation period - transition implying, at least for Rees-Mogg, an indeterminate or open-ended process that sees the UK chained to the EU in “perpetual purgatory” - a “vassal state” still taking its order from Brussels.2
Even worse, thinks Rees-Mogg, “if everything is delayed for two years and then there’s high alignment you will find that by 2022 no-one will have noticed any difference from having left” - meaning that “the less of Brexit you get, the more likely you are to get Jeremy Corbyn”. But “if you get a good, clean Brexit” then “the chances of getting Jeremy Corbyn are much diminished”. Are you listening, Theresa?
Like many true Brexiteers, Rees-Mogg is also angered by the recent comment from chancellor Philip Hammondthat trade relations between the UK and EU would change only “very modestly” after Brexit. This was yet more proof, some say, that the perfidious chancellor is determined to obstruct Brexit - suspicions further stoked by the chancellor’s subsequent remark that that the UK should seek a “middle way” in negotiations in order to “maximise” access to EU markets. Fuelling paranoia even more, justifiably or not, Brexit secretary David Davis, business secretary Greg Clark and Hammond himself wrote an open letter to reassure business leaders that the UK would “maintain continuity” with EU rules during the transition. EU citizens would also be free to “live and work” in the UK during the transition period of “around two years” and have “no new barriers to taking up employment” - except having to register with the authorities, the letter said. Predictably, Rees-Mogg immediately objected on the basis that this amounted to a “status quo transition”, with the UK remaining subject to European Court of Justice rulings, having to accept new laws and paying into the EU budget - all this represented “a failure of negotiations” and a “sign of weakness”.
Echoing the stance of Rees-Mogg, several Tories - including Nadine Dorries and Marcus Fysh - have called for Hammond to be sacked, while Theresa Villiers, a former cabinet minister, has warned that the government was at risk of “not respecting” the result of the referendum:“Since the prime minister set out a bold vision in her Lancaster House speech,” she complained in The Sunday Telegraph, “the direction of travel seems to have gone in only one single direction: towards a dilution of Brexit”, where the UK would remain in the EU “in all but name” (January 20). Brino indeed.
In turn, Claire Perry, the energy minister, infuriated some pro-‘leave’ MPs after characterising critics of the Brexit divorce bill as “the swivel-eyed few” in a WhatsApp group - her account was seemingly hacked and leaked. In the same fashion, ex-minister Anna Soubry from the pro-EU end of the Tory party, hit back at the right wing of her party: “When is the government going to stand up to the hard Brexiteers? There’s only about 35 of them.” Meanwhile, trade secretary Liam Fox appeared on Bloomberg News to advise the anti-May plotters that it would be “foolish to do anything to destabilise the government and the prime minister”, as “nothing will change the parliamentary arithmetic” - so “prepare for disappointment”. He later explained on the BBC that his warning to the conspirators was that they will be “disappointed” in their efforts to topple Theresa May or secure cabinet positions for themselves, not that the prime minister was preparing to betray their Brexit hopes and dreams. Perish the thought.
Yet they continue to plot despite the fact that there is no obvious or agreed successor to Theresa May, no apparent alternative - the one factor that has kept her place and may continue to do so for some time to come. Boris Johnson? Jacob Rees-Mogg? Michael Gove? Gavin Williamson? David Davis? Philip Hammond? Hardly unity candidates. Meanwhile, Tory feuding over Brexit looks set to continue. As Polly Toynbee wrote in The Observer, “try this thought experiment: devise a deal that satisfies the ‘crash out now’ Brextremists, the Binos [sic] and the stay-ins” (January 28). Mission impossible.
But at some stage in the relatively near future something must give, as the current situation is untenable. At the end of the day something must give - whether that means replacing May with a new leader or allowing an early general election. In which case, Johnny Mercer and Jacob Rees-Mogg might end up with their ultimate nightmare: a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.