If May’s gutsy, she can save a desperate situation

by Hugo Dixon | 23.05.2019

Desperate times call for desperate measures. So it is with the prime minister.

The one way she can hang onto power and stop a hard Brexiter replacing her is if opposition MPs throw their protective cloak over her. And the only way they will do that is if she agrees to put her deal to the people in a new referendum.

Theresa May will be kicked out as Tory leader if she does that. But she’s going to be removed from that post anyway. The crucial point is that she wouldn’t then have to quit as prime minister. If the opposition supported her legislation, she could continue in office until the People’s Vote had been held.

Theresa May was willing to offer a new referendum at the start of Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. In the technical language, she suggested putting it “on the face” of her Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). But after complaints from Andrea Leadsom and others, she backed down and instead offered the opposition a half-cock version of the idea – that they could try to amend her bill to require her deal to be put to a People’s Vote.

That mealy-mouthed offer has ended up angering many Tory MPs without winning over the opposition. Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, has resigned anyway. Other Cabinet ministers – including foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and home secretary Sajid Javid – are trying to get May to pull the WAB or at least rescind the half-cock referendum offer. And the knives are out to remove her as Tory leader. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, will read her the riot act tomorrow.

So if May does nothing, she will be kicked out as Tory leader. A hardline Brexiter, probably Boris Johnson, will take over – and without the opposition’s support there’s no way May could continue as prime minister. After that, pretty much any scenario would trash the things she cares for.

Johnson might just run down the clock. We’d then crash out of the EU with no deal at all on October 31. The prime minister rightly fears that will risk the unity of the United Kingdom. The ensuing chaos would probably mean the government (which doesn’t have a majority) would fall and Jeremy Corbyn would enter Downing Street – not something May wants as her legacy.

Alternatively, Johnson might call an election. But with the Tories tearing themselves to pieces and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party rising in the polls, the winner would probably be Corbyn.

Johnson might, of course, cut a deal with Farage so they didn’t compete in an election. Such a devilish pact might save the Tories’ skin but it would also mean crashing out of the EU with no deal. It would also turn the Tories into a far-right party – not what the current prime minister wants.

Finally, Johnson might call his own referendum. But May’s deal wouldn’t then be on the ballot paper. The choice would be between staying in the EU and crashing out.

All these are ghastly scenarios for May. So if she has nerves of steel, she could try the only alternative: make the opposition the really bold offer of putting her deal to the people.

Obviously, large sections of the Tory Party would go bananas. There would be another slew of resignations from the Cabinet and she would be stripped of her leadership of the Tory Party. But what does she have to lose?

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “If May’s gutsy, she can save a desperate situation”

  • Why not Revoke ?

    Perhaps the ultimate service Mrs May could do would be to unilaterally revoke Art 50 to create a new level playing field for the whole country, My understanding is that she could do this by simply writing a letter as PM, –even if she has given a departure date — to Donald Tusk withdrawing her Art 50 letter. It seems that both international and UK lawyers agree that should be within her constitutional rights to do so and would not even need the support of all her cabinet, let alone Parliament.

    Obviously Brexiteers of all shades would scream and shout treachery but they do so all ready. She could justify it by saying that she believed the move was in the future interest of the country and would allow for her successor, even a pramagatic Brexiteer, to have a freer hand, Meanwhile ministers could return to concentrate on the other issues facing the UK’s future.

  • Oh how much I wish she would………..

    If she really wanted to go out with a bang and be remembered for something strong and in the best interests of the country and not just her failing “pop will eat itself” party, then this would be the most outstanding, strong and conciliatory thing she could do before stepping down………..

  • I think revoke Art. 50 is something which could only be used ‘in extremis’ as a last emergency measure, when all attempts to secure a further public vote had failed, and we were literally about to leave the EU with no deal.

  • How strange it is to live in a beautiful, but tiresome, basket-case of a country. Brexit is a long-term chronic disease which may indeed be terminal. When should we consider pulling the plug, and just let England go?