As ever, Prime Minister Theresa May is battling a leadership crisis this week. Rumours abound that the Chair of the 1922 Committee is getting perilously close to having enough letters of no confidence in Mrs May to automatically trigger a vote on her future (48 is the magic number). If a vote is forced (and it will come as a surprise, when it comes, as the present number of letters is a jealously guarded secret) the PM will have to decide whether she can face (and whether she can win) a brutal confidence vote. If not, once the threshold is reached she will have to bow out.
Meanwhile, the long-brewing row over the ‘transition period’ is bubbling and spitting and threatening – finally – to boil over. May put this argument off last year with a spot of linguistic jujitsu, referring to the two-year bridge to Brexit as a ‘transition phase’ or ‘implementation phase’ when in fact, it is neither. We will not be implementing anything. And we won’t be transitioning – in any meaningful sense – either. Instead, as far as the EU is concerned, we will simply be maintaining the status quo (minus our having any say over EU decisions) in anticipation of a final exit in two years time. That way, we can try to get ourselves sorted (in terms of infrastructure, regulations etc.) for the reality of life outside the Single Market and Customs Union whilst the EU benefits from continued payments and has time to make preparations of its own.
Many Conservative MPs, even Brexit-supporting ones, seem happy enough with this fudge – in part because the whole thing is so unbelievably complicated and they can’t be arsed to master the detail. Two significant figures, however, are not. First is Boris Johnson, who has come to believe that his entire political reputation (let alone any future shot at Number 10) rests on securing a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS. The Foreign Secretary believes that without something like his promised £350 million for the health service he will be remembered and reviled as a liar. Two further years of payments to the EU means two further years of vulnerability and delays to Boris’ rehabilitation – he is increasingly impatient and petulant on the matter, thus his astonishing pre-leak of his comments to Cabinet last week.
The other leading malcontent is Jacob Rees Mogg, who has recently been elevated to the Chairmanship of the powerful hard-Brexit caucus the European Research Group. Unlike the previous Chair, Suella Fernandes, Mogg is ruthlessly intelligent and strategic. His fear is that the ‘transition period’ will in fact become the permanent status quo – that our new relationship with Europe will be the same as the old one just with less influence. Mogg’s fears may not be entirely unfounded, something not dissimilar to this outcome is privately favoured by Philip Hammond and by almost the entirety of the civil service.
As all of this unfolds, Mrs May’s Government appear incapable of anything like normal service day-to-day. Ministers at DExEU openly attack their own civil servants for producing impact assessments which, until recently, they denied the very existence of. The Department for Transport cannot bring forward vital legislation for the freight industry (without which, should there be ‘no deal’, British haulage will collapse) because the Brexit lobby believe that the planned Bill gives away too much information about the UK’s negotiating position. The Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, James Cleverly has called on May’s former Chief-of-Staff, Nick Timothy to ‘shut the f**k up’ whilst the Vice- Chairman for Youth, Ben Bradley has to apologise on a rolling, day-by-day basis for comments he made about poor people in the past. In the Lords, the European Withdrawal Bill is being openly opposed by Peers on all sides whilst in the Commons there is simply no majority for Mrs May’s approach to Brexit (or, in fairness, for anyone else’s). The Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, meanwhile, faces questions about whether he damaged our relationship with key intelligence partners by leaking information in order to distract from an affair he may (or may not) have had a decade ago.
How can she go on? That’s the question that leads a brutalising edition of the Tory magazine The Spectator this week. James Forsyth, speaking almost as shop steward for the dismayed party, demands that Mrs May ‘lead or go’. The problem for May, though, is that she can’t do either. To lead – in any direction – will further upset the uneasy balance that her ‘see what you want to see, hear what you want to hear’ approach to Brexit has just about maintained so far. Either the Brexiteers will scream blue murder or she will finally provoke ministerial resignations and open rebellion from the soft-Brexit left of her party. And if she goes? She will be remembered cruelly by history and replaced by someone else who will face all the same problems – either a Brexiteer who alienates the parliamentary party or a Remainer who is at odds with members and voters.
The problem for this Government is not Mrs May’s personality (although it is reasonable to conclude that it does not help), it is that on Brexit it has no policy. It cannot agree on what it wants and it cannot decide between the options that are available. That’s the real reason we need a transition period and that’s the real reason Mrs May is in such trouble. But she is saved from an all-out rebellion by the soft-Brexit brigade because of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s insistence that Brexit must mean leaving the Single Market and the Custom’s Union means that the likes of Anna Soubry have limited options – even if they voted against the Government on these questions, they cannot guarantee Labour support and will therefore lose. The Labour Party are May’s Brexit safety-net.
Until someone can come up with a way through, with something (anything) that breaks this policy stalemate, the Government will continue to wander, hopelessly, round and round in circles. The only effect of which, of course, is a national bout of acute dizziness.